‘An extraordinary moment’: UC Berkeley talk examines fascism, far-right

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On Tuesday, the UC Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute held a virtual interview with professor Lawrence Rosenthal, the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies’ founder, lead researcher and current chair.

The talk was held over Zoom, with nearly 500 viewers at its peak. In his opening presentation, Rosenthal addressed a number of political issues, including 20th-century fascism in Europe, modern-day nationalist regimes across the globe, white supremacy and the “alt-right,” or white nationalist, political movement in the United States.

Following the presentation, Bill Sokol, a Bay Area labor and employment lawyer and San Francisco State University lecturer, asked Rosenthal a series of questions. The interview began with Rosenthal’s assessment of the current state of the far-right in the United States.

“This is an extraordinary moment because we’ve had two ‘on the streets’ protest movements consecutively — the anti-lockdown demonstrations, followed by the George Floyd protests,” Rosenthal said.

According to Rosenthal, most anti-lockdown protesters were supporters of right-wing constitutional populism, an ideological faction that focuses on violations of individual rights and freedoms.

With the advent of COVID-19, Rosenthal explained, constitutional populism has morphed into “populist epidemiology,” which argues that doctors and public health experts should not have the authority to force citizens to take certain health precautions.

While disparate far-right groups were generally united in their support for the anti-lockdown movement, they differed in their responses to protests over Floyd’s death.

“On the one hand, the ‘alt-right’ is ideologically driven, and their ideology is white nationalism,” Rosenthal said at the event. “They’re in the tradition of fascists, Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.”

Given its white nationalist ideology, the “alt-right” staunchly opposed recent Black Lives Matter protests, according to Rosenthal. Alternatively, another right-wing extremist group known as the “Boogaloo Boys” supported recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations because of its hatred for police, Rosenthal added.

Members of the “Boogaloo Boys” are extreme gun enthusiasts whose goal is to spark a political civil war, or “Boogaloo,” in the United States, Rosenthal explained.

Because police forces stand in the way of this goal and given the lack of a white supremacist ideology central to the group, the “Boogaloo Boys” group was, in large part, unopposed to the movement surrounding victims of police brutality, according to Rosenthal.

Rosenthal also spoke to fears that the United States is edging ever closer to fascism under the Donald Trump administration. While acknowledging the president’s “dangerously authoritarian rhetoric” and actions, Rosenthal said comparisons to other countries’ fascist regimes are imperfect.

It was much easier for past fascist regimes, such as those of Hitler and Mussolini, to establish private militias — controlled by an authoritarian leader — than it would be in the United States. This is because the U.S.’ “military brass,” or top army leadership, is unlikely to allow an authoritarian figure to co-opt the military forces.

Despite what he considers to be exaggerated assertions of the U.S.’ proximity to fascism, Rosenthal said he thinks Trump still poses a threat to the U.S.’ democratic institutions.

“The easiest way to eliminate that threat is to vote him out,” Rosenthal said.

Contact Mattias Hoz at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @hozmattias.