Last weekend, the fancy Metropolitan Republican Club, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, hosted the Proud Boys’ Gavin McInnes. The ex-founder of Vice magazine, failed stand-up comic, and current leader of the far-right “Western chauvinist” group gave what was, according to a witness, a bizarre and disjointed speech.* McInnes dressed up as a Japanese assassin who killed a Socialist politician with a sword during a political rally in 1960, re-enacting the event with the help of a fellow Proud Boy.
Afterward, the Proud Boys clashed with antifascist protesters on the street in several fistfights that were caught on video. The NYPD arrested several antifascists, but for days failed to detain any Proud Boys, finally announcing on Monday following public protest that they would seek charges for some members of the group. The club, for its part, issued a statement defending their decision to invite McInnes, saying that his speech celebrating the murder of a socialist was not meant to incite violence.
Some argue that the best way to deal with groups like the Proud Boys, which thrive off the oxygen of publicity, might be to ignore them. But was last weekend’s incident a turning point in the relationship between establishment Republicanism and far-right neofascists?* Shouldn’t we be paying attention on those grounds alone? The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill and Will Sommer argue that it was, and that the success of the Proud Boys in gaining entrée into places like the Metropolitan Republican Club (as well as past public support from Republican figures like Roger Stone, Tucker Carlson, and Devin Nunes) is reminiscent of the way fascism gained power in Europe between World Wars I and II.
Weill and Sommer quote historian Robert Paxton, who wrote in 2004 that if you take 20th-century European history as a guide, any publicly recognized relationship between the conservative elite and neo-Nazi skinheads (the most fascist-adjacent faction the American fringe had to offer at the time Paxton was writing) would be a warning sign that American fascism was on the rise. So here we are, for the millionth time in the last two years, looking back at the history of interwar European fascism for some lessons.
Fascism used conservatism for its own purposes most effectively in Mussolini’s Italy. In the early 1920s, as Mussolini began his rise to power, the Black Shirts, or squadristi, rampaged through the Northern Italian countryside, perpetrating a campaign of terror. After World War I, many Italian veterans were bitter, chafing at the Allies’ refusal to give the country the land they believed it deserved. With the social order in flux, right-leaning veterans who had joined the National Fascist Party targeted agricultural regions where socialism had recently gained political power, and recently annexed territories that had large numbers of ethnic Slovene and Croat residents.
In these places, where they perceived a threat to their values of true “Italian” purity, the squadristi beat people, burned down houses, threatened families, and destroyed property. In some cases, they fed Socialist political opponents castor oil, and then paraded them around in the backs of trucks, so that they would foul themselves in public and discredit themselves to their followers. Historian Michael R. Ebner estimated in 2010 that this campaign of political terror killed several thousand, and wounded tens of thousands. In its destruction of local socialist movements, it laid the groundwork for Mussolini to take power.
The most important lesson of the squadristi period when looking at the Proud Boys today is that conservative landowners, threatened by their workers’ emergent socialism, supported this widespread Fascist violence as a necessary corrective. Like present-day Republicans who offer legitimacy to the Proud Boys’ theatrics, the conservative powers-that-be in Italy looked the other way while squadristi violence worked to their own benefit. Ebner writes that police often arrested the victims of these attacks while allowing the Fascist perpetrators to “slip away”; “magistrates convicted Socialists at an absurdly higher rate than Fascists.” If any were detained, Fascists would go to the jails and “force” the guards to set their compatriots free. In this way, Ebner writes, “squad political violence started to erode the institutions of the liberal state” even before the Fascists marched on Rome in 1922 to insist Mussolini be put in charge.
The next step of the right-leaning Italian establishment was to help Mussolini into power. Explaining how conservative politicians came to find common cause with Fascists in Italy, historian Martin Blinkhorn wrote in 2000 that Fascists “were often critical of the way capitalism worked, especially on a financial level, but seldom of capitalism itself.” While Mussolini initially opposed established institutions like the monarchy and the Catholic Church, he and his followers changed their tune “as the possibility of power became real and it became necessary to confront the question of how it might actually be achieved.”
The public political violence of the squadristi period, on its own, would not have been enough to install and maintain Mussolini as dictator. Mussolini needed support from the crown, the Vatican, the military, and landowners to seize and retain power, and he got it. The establishment, Blinkhorn wrote, essentially decided “that Fascism deserved the governmental role that Mussolini was now demanding—indeed that a brief administering of ‘Fascist’ muscle might be just the thing that Italian politics and society needed.”
After Fascists murdered the socialist parliamentary deputy Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, a coalition of Socialist, liberal, and Catholic deputies left Parliament en masse in protest. Blinkhorn believed that Mussolini, who was “panic-stricken” by this resistance, might have resigned at this point if the king, Victor Emmanuel III, had demanded it. But the king, and his supporters on the right, thought Mussolini was better than the alternatives—Socialism, or else an explosion of Fascist violence directed at the conservative elite—and believed they could control him. They couldn’t.
In other parts of Europe, conservatives sided with fascists in order to preserve the social status quo. In Germany, the early ascendancy of Hitler was made possible by what Blinkhorn called “the machinations of conservative politicians and generals” and the “complacency” of economic interests. “The German elites who opened the way to Hitler and the Nazis gravely misunderstood and underestimated the force with which they were flirting,” Blinkhorn wrote.
A counterexample is Great Britain, where scattered fascist movements failed to gain political power during the same period, in part because conservative forces did not accept them. Historian John Stevenson argued in 1990 that in Britain, the lack of a true left-wing challenge to conservative hegemony—one that might under other circumstances push those on the right to embrace fascism—denied a real foothold to even the most successful fascist politician, Oswald Mosley. Stevenson noted that the semi-military style of the British Union of Fascists—uniforms, marching in formation—rubbed the establishment the wrong way in the early 1930s. “The combined use of mass meetings, uniformed parades, and the trappings of continental fascism, all at the command of a charismatic leader, had no antecedents in British politics,” Stevenson wrote. In June 1934, when antifascist demonstrators disturbed a meeting of the BUF and clashed with a smaller number of Fascist believers, conservative forces in Britain blamed Mosely and his Fascists for the violence. As Hitler’s regime in Germany got bloodier, the BUF “found itself increasingly alienated from respectable opinion.”
A few promising candidates and a lot of energy aside, we don’t have a real socialist movement in this country, either—certainly not one of the kind that led Italian and German conservative elites, worried about social instability in the wake of an all-consuming war, to embrace the “strong arm” of fascist violence in hopes of keeping their power. But we do have an unreasonable fear on the right of that type of socialist challenge—a fear that is stoked by the president’s rhetoric. Just last week at a rally in Topeka, Kansas, Trump said that Democrats, who are “radical” and “unhinged,” are “too dangerous to govern.” In his USA Today editorial, which also published last week, he wrote: “The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela … If Democrats win control of Congress this November, we will come dangerously closer to socialism in America.”
The president’s refusal to condemn unconditionally the violent alt-right protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 felt like a bellwether for conservative acceptance of neofascist alt-right violence. The Proud Boys’ invitation to the Metropolitan Republican Club, and that club’s refusal to apologize for this act of legitimization in the wake of the violence that followed, feels like the next dangerous step.
Correction, Oct. 27, 2018: This article originally misstated that the Proud Boys are an alt-right group. Though the Proud Boys have espoused anti-immigrant and “Western chauvinist” views, founder Gavin McInnes has asserted that the group is not a part of the alt-right movement.