The Rise of Border Fascism

The Rise of Border Fascism

Far-right groups threaten violence amid a contested election. How did we get here?

Attendees at a Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon, on September 26 ( Maranie R. Staab/AFP via Getty Images)

According to a source who follows Proud Boy chats on the app Telegram, the far right organization, which has been in a state of nervous excitement ever since Donald Trump instructed them to “stand back and stand by” at the first presidential debate in September, were enraged by news sources calling the state of Vermont for Joe Biden early on election night. They insisted that the liberal media only did it to prevent their fellow liberals from rioting in the streets. In the fever swamps of the right, anything less than fifty-state victory for Trump is proof of deep-state perfidy. Trump himself is only slightly less fervid, insisting only election fraud could rob him of victory, pre-emptively declaring victory, and, as of this writing, insisting on a recount in Wisconsin, where he has lost by 20,000 votes. Hanging on his every tweet and perhaps mindful of the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that helped sway things for George W. Bush in 2000, the Proud Boys and other Trump-aligned fascists will perhaps see this as their time to rise up. How did we get here?

Things move quickly in the world of the far right. Journalist Vegas Tenold profiled Matthew Heimbach and his fascist Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) in his 2018 book Everything You Love Will Burn. Not a month after publication, Heimbach became a laughingstock when he was arrested after a brawl that started when it was revealed he was sleeping with the wife of his second-in-command, who also happened to be the step-father of Heimbach’s wife. The TWP imploded immediately after what became known as the “Night of the Wrong Wives.” Tenold’s book still has value for its depiction of certain aspects of the far right, but history has marched on.

In Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, forthcoming from Haymarket Books in January, journalist Brendan O’Connor sidesteps this occupational hazard for chroniclers of the far right by focusing less on any particular individual or group and more on what he sees as its uniting concept going forward: border fascism. Nativism, and more generally a preoccupation with borders and boundaries, he argues, defines the contemporary right. This is as true in the corridors of power as it is in online Nazi discourse. Geographical political borders, such as the one between the United States and Mexico, are one of the right’s central concerns, but the preoccupation extends to other, more metaphorical boundaries as well: the boundaries that shape hierarchies of gender, race, and class. As contemporary conditions, from climate-driven refugee flows to challenges to gender binaries, test these boundaries, revealing how arbitrary and contradictory they generally are, their defenders grow increasingly paranoid, febrile, and violent.

Blood Red Lines makes an exhilarating and compelling case for border fascism as the key to understanding the right. With the political mainstream seemingly bereft of ideas, the violent re-enforcement of borders has become the right-wing response to the crises of our era. The ideas of border fascism—that civilization as we know it is under assault from people transgressing both national borders and the boundaries that cement social hierarchies—have filtered from the activist fringe to the core of the Republican Party, as represented by Trump’s rise to power. Indeed, the transmission of ideas from the far-right activist flank to Republican policymaking has been much smoother than with comparable dynamics between left-wing activists and the Democrats.

Money goes a long way toward explaining this difference. O’Connor begins his narrative with the tale of John Tanton and Cordelia Scaife May, who between them provided the undergirding for contemporary American nativism as a political force. Tanton was the ideologue, a right-wing conservationist who saw immigrants as the main threat to (implicitly white) American living standards. May was the money, a classic “poor little rich girl” from the Mellon dynasty, effectively raised feral by indifferent parents—easy prey for the likes of Tanton. May left a significant part of her $825 million to various anti-immigration causes when she died. It’s the money that allows nativist hate groups like the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA to survive. (May’s story is, in and of itself, a good argument for an estate tax with aggressive instruments to pursue money that goes into oligarch-funded “foundations.”)

Subsequent chapters detail the range of groups and subcultures on the far right and the ways in which border fascism unites them. Many commentators get thrown by the variety of ideologies on display on the right and declare that it’s impossible to lump them all together, and certainly not into such a tendentious category as “fascism.” O’Connor’s focus on violent nativism and boundary policing, by contrast, provides a through line between militia groups, online reactionaries, neo-Nazis, the “alt-lite,” and every other fascist faction. They all see themselves as enforcing borders. Moreover, they all share an enemy: those who cross these boundaries, along with those who point to the arbitrariness of those boundaries in the first place—that is, anyone on the left.

This dynamic can perhaps best be illustrated by the Proud Boys. Since a 2017 report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) designated the Proud Boys a hate group, much has changed on the far right. Rather than form a pathway to more conventional openly white supremacist formations, as the SPLC predicted, the Proud Boys have remained in what social scientists Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph Lowndes call the “liminal space” between racism and multiculturalism, and between open fascism and the supposedly “normal” Republican Party. While more strongly “anti-system” fascists such as the TWP folded under antifascist opposition and their own incompetence, the Proud Boys have held on to acquire pole position among the groups of the militant far right.

There’s a certain lowest-common-denominator effect at work here. The Proud Boys were founded by Gavin McInnes, the cofounder of Vice and a man whose primary skillset is marketing and branding. There’s little in the way obtuse ideology to grasp in order to be a Proud Boy. They mostly just codify the beliefs and customs of right-leaning North American meatheads. The Proud Boys point to people of color in their ranks as proof that they’re not racist, taking full advantage of the tokenism that passes for enlightened racial attitudes among those who can’t be bothered with substantive anti-racism. Resistance to the kind of critical, empathic thought that would lead to an understanding of racism as a structure rather than a personality flaw is part of what animates the Proud Boys and other far right formations. Some, like the “identitarians” aping European fascist intellectuals, create elaborate pseudo-intellectual edifices to keep critical thought at bay; the Proud Boys have gotten more traction by simply drowning it out with chants of “USA” and “I like beer!” The militant ignorance of the Proud Boys, along with serving as cover for their politics, is part and parcel of the program of border fascism—which is, as O’Connor describes it, above all else a failure of imagination and empathy.

The interwoven crises of capitalism and ecological catastrophe transcend national borders and make a mockery of many of our other artificial boundaries as well. Humane solutions that go beyond triaging humanity necessarily transcend borders, as well. The massive overhaul of the global infrastructure necessary to maintain civilization in the face of climate catastrophe will require all of our labor, regardless of where it comes from, working orthogonally or in opposition to corporate power all over the world. Anything that makes that cooperation harder makes human survival less likely.

For many, imaging the end of the world is easier than—even preferable to—imagining an end to the destructive hierarchies that have brought our crises on. Some on the far right, like Matt Heimbach, do have fatuous dreams of a different world, but the most dangerous factions fight for an apotheosized version of the world in which we already live: capitalism, and its racial and gender hierarchies, newly reinscribed in blood. O’Connor’s effort to view the far right, from the streets to the web forums to the White House, through the lens of border fascism does more to make sense of these political developments than any other intervention in recent years. Equally informed by scholarship, by theory, and by action on the ground, Blood Red Lines has set the bar for new works on the contemporary fascist right, for researchers and antifascist organizers both.


Peter Berard is an organizer and writer based in Watertown, Massachusetts. You can follow his work at peterberard.substack.com.


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