It seems like if you were truly sincere about the whole “Make America Great Again” thing — that is, if it weren’t just a campaign slogan that jibes with your xenophobic branding and can move tens of thousands of red hats at $25 a pop — then one might actually want to celebrate America’s first victory against fascism.

The hard work of anti-fascism wasn’t a super-popular U.S. cause even in early 1941 — when Adolf Hitler’s troops occupied most of Europe and were raining down bombs on London. But when the sleeping giant finally woke up after Pearl Harbor, America’s so-called Greatest Generation was all in. Millions enlisted to fight fascism abroad and millions more sacrificed at home — rationing gas and growing “Victory Gardens” in cramped backyards. The price — 416,800 U.S. troops died — was horrible but there was little dissent because so few quibbled with the necessity of lifting the boot of totalitarianism off Western Europe and huge swaths of Asia, and helping to end Hitler’s death camps.

It probably never would have occurred to the soldiers who charged into Nazi machine-gun fire on Omaha Beach that in just a couple of years would be born a future American president who would threaten to make anti-fascism a U.S. government-recognized form of domestic terrorism.

But the fact that President Trump would take to Twitter — as he did Saturday, as more than a thousand anti-fascist demonstrators took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, in opposition to the Proud Boys and other right-wing extremists, including some in those red “Make America Great Again” hats — to condemn the anti-fascist movement raises what is becoming an existential question for America in the Trump era.

Whose anti-fascism is it, anyway?

Will we kowtow to Trump and his white nationalist base and accept only the narrowest possible meaning of anti-fascism? — “antifa,” which to millions of folks who only get information from the quasi-state-media known as the Fox News Channel has been both mischaracterized and then amplified into a scary violent army. And will they succeed in taking the radical, sometimes misguided and occasionally reprehensible acts of a very few to then outlaw legitimate dissent against white supremacy?

Or can we successfully define “anti-fascism” as something much closer to what it really is — the masses of people who show up in force in places like Portland not to commit acts of violence but to make a public stand? The ones who come out to say that they won’t respond to either the violent vanguard of white supremacist groups — like those who carried torches, chanted against Jews and murdered the peaceful protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville — or the increasingly neo-fascist tendencies of the 45th president by sitting at home on their couches?

And can we acknowledge that the ideals of American anti-fascism — that the first green shoots of a hate-fueled, authoritarian society need to be not tolerated but tamped down and crushed before it gets to be too late — were forged in blood in places like Normandy and Iwo Jima and enshrined in the slogan, “Never Again!”?

Fascism has been defined historically as an all-encompassing, totalitarian state with a cult of personality around a dictatorial leader, with increasing militarism amid a regime of violence and the stifling of dissent. You’d think nothing could be more American than to be called an “anti-fascist.”

“If you oppose racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and the xenophobic, ultranationalist ideologies of the far right (and our current administration), you are an EVERYDAY ANTIFASCIST,” according to the flyer distributed last week in Portland — ahead of the marches and counter-marches — by a group called the Popular Mobilization. It added: “If you are not a fascist — then you are Antifa.”

That’s where things get trickier. Few Americans — myself included — had even heard the word “antifa” (merely a shortened version of anti-fascist) before January 20, 2017, when various right-wing groups spouting nonsense like “Hail Trump!” showed up in D.C. and left-wing protesters turned out to oppose them. To Fox News, whose rating model depends on scaring its mostly older (median age: 65) viewing audience that some “Other” is threatening them — usually it’s brown-skinned people from Mexico or the Middle East or wherever — the discovery of “antifa” was manna from heaven.

It’s tricky because the far-left has always (i.e., way before Trump) a tiny extreme fringe — including the adapters of so-called Black Bloc tactics — who show up at events with masks and an eagerness to provoke conflict, often with the cops. I saw maybe a half-dozen of them, for example, at a “Philly Is Charlottesville” march in 2017 after Heyer’s murder — and they were shunned and yelled at by the bulk of peaceful demonstrators. But since Trump and the increased profile of right-wing extremist groups, these folks are more visible.

Some argue that the horrors of fascism — as seen in World War II and the death camps — morally demand responses that encompass any means necessary, including violence. I empathize with much of that stance, but any violence is a dangerous, slippery slope. Especially when it’s unprovoked, and not in self-defense. Let’s be honest — there’s some people who throw rocks at cops or smash the windows of Starbucks mainly because they like doing that.

That’s immoral. I condemn people who initiate violence, as I think most of us would. The handful of acts of unprovoked destruction in places like Berkeley — while minor compared to what’s come from the right — haven’t stopped fascism … and might enable it. It takes away from what the bulk of today’s American anti-fascists are doing — researching and identifying the alarming number of extremists who’ve forged ties and even infiltrated law enforcement or conservative politics, or showing up on the streets of Portland or Charlottesville or Philadelphia just to prove that hate is outnumbered.

The face of someone who I think epitomizes today’s anti-fascism is the Philadelphia activist Gwen Snyder, whom I’ve known and covered since the Occupy Philly protests in 2011. Her primary “weapon” is her keyboard, which she has used to expose members of the Proud Boys and others who have infiltrated civic affairs in Philadelphia and public gatherings. As a result, a group of young men (captured on security camera footage which I’ve seen) showed up in her neighborhood, asked people about her whereabouts in crude language, and plastered “Proud Boys” stickers all around (again, shown on video.) The police have been investigating.

But it’s Gwen Snyder and people like her that President Trump wants to criminalize. On Saturday, he tweeted, ““Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.’” Meanwhile, police were confiscating weapons such as metal poles, shields, and bear spray from the right-wing groups who’d called for a Portland rally — not from “antifa.”

There was no equivalent tweet from Trump this week about declaring the Proud Boys “an ORGANIZATION OF TERROR” even after two more members of the white-nationalist and pro-Trump group were convicted of attempted gang assault, attempted assault and rioting in beating up left-wing demonstrators last year on New York’s Upper East Side (and seven other Proud Boys have pleaded guilty to related charges.)

Even more alarming, there was no sense of urgency from the White House about the sudden explosion of cases of authorities preventing — just barely in time, apparently — would-be mass shooters, at least three of whom had expressed violent hatred toward targets like African-Americans, Jews or the LGBTQ community. Their ideas echo the manifesto of the recent El Paso shooter who killed 22 people in a Walmart because he wanted to stop a “Mexican invasion.” This brand of white-supremacist violence has become the public safety threat of our time — and yet Trump seems uninterested, perhaps because the actual and wannabe killers are adopting his xenophobic rhetoric.

Some experts have suggested in the wake of El Paso that new laws are needed to crack down on the rise of domestic terrorism. Trump’s Saturday tweets shows why that is a terrible, terrible idea. Any new legal authority would be seized by the Trump administration as a tool not to prevent wanton violence but to stifle political dissent. We don’t need a single new law to thwart the rise of white-supremacist terror in the United States. We need instead to fight the nightmare of a president who enables it.

It’s time for decent people to push back against Fox News and propagandist false branding of “antifa.” Anti-fascism is needed now in America more than any time since 1945. I’m proud to call myself an anti-fascist — to identify with the people taking the work of the World War II generation into our fraught new century. Indeed, nothing could be more American — regardless of what one American president tweets about it.

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©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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