During the Democratic National Convention in 2016 the incomparable Michelle Obama gave a speech in which she uttered the now famous words, “when they go low, we go high.” This was an Obama and probably a Robinson family mantra well before it went national. This was how the Obamas taught their daughters to react to unfair and unearned criticism. This is how the Michelle and Barack always responded to cruel and racist barbs and it is the underpinning of their grace.
Since the convention, particularly after Hillary Clinton won the election but was denied the office she had earned, many have questioned the wisdom of Michelle Obama’s words. It is — after all — frustrating to be the recipient of hateful abuse and even threats of violence when you have done nothing at all to deserve it. But Michelle’s right.
There’s not a lot you can do beyond hold up a mirror and hope they see their reflection as it actually is.
Fascists and autocrats at the ground level have two main things going on. Firstly, they feel that they lack an identity or social mooring and secondly they feel aggrieved. They don’t have to actually be aggrieved, they just have to feel that way. If you descend to their level you prove their point.
This is kind of like dealing with someone who is delusional and trying to gaslight you. You cannot just point out that they’re completely untethered from reality — of course Trump never won a general election, of course there’s no “witch hunt,” against him, of course Democrats are not harvesting children’s blood for satanic rituals. But they have tied their sense of identity to all those insane things being true. They are not emotionally in a position to let go of it because without it they’re not — in their very own eyes — a person. And yeah, through their delusion they are causing considerable damage and have actually killed people.
So you may think, “enough is enough.” You may think that they’ll use your refusal to engage as a sign that you’re complicit. And they will. But as a group the best way to respond to fascists is to insist on your own reality, but not necessarily demand that they immediately let go of their fantasy. Except for the ones that injure and kill people. If they get to that point they need to go to prison.
The problem with fascists is that they are inherently damaged. The reason fascists engage in violent behaviour and come up with plots to kidnap and murder governors, or shoot up synagogues, or just randomly massacre Black people is because they have convinced themselves — unreasonably — that their feelings are more important than other people’s lives. If you talk to a fascist and ask them why they are violent they will invariably tell you that the other side is worse. According to Nazis and the KKK, Jews and/or Black people and/or Muslims and/or Mexicans and/or whatever group that aren’t them are going around raping white women and killing white children. They will insist on this. It’s obviously and clearly not factual, but you will never be able to convince a radicalized fascist that it’s not. And once you’ve failed they’ll insist that they’re just being, “rational.”
So the question is, how did they get to this point? White people are not oppressed at all. White women get kicked by white men rather frequently, but there’s no weird conspiracy against specifically white men. So why manufacture one?
Well, weirdly, it’s jealousy. White people, particularly white men don’t really understand systemic racism and sexism. They’ve never experienced it themselves. They do not really understand how behaviours they think are innocuous or even complimentary like commenting on a woman’s body or suggesting someone is well-spoken can reinforce inequality. Worse, programs like Affirmative Action and Title IX mean that white men feel like they are not being given the allocations or positions they “deserve.” They don’t understand these programs as creating an actual meritocracy because they cannot conceptualize a society where a woman or person of colour might be the better candidate or athlete or student or whatever they may be. They do not understand that they are not just naturally the best so when someone else gets something they wanted, even if it’s something they never worked for or never really previously thought about, they feel aggrieved.
Gamergate is a really excellent example of this aggrievement out of nowhere. There were always women and people of colour and LGBTQ individuals playing games. And there always will be. Gamers are perceived as white and male, and white men are largely the demographic marketed to by game companies, but the actual gaming community is much more diverse. Gamergate came about because of a bad breakup and a guy who thought his ex-girlfriend’s success couldn’t possibly be due to her skill as a developer and therefore had to be due to her use of sexuality in what he believed was a primarily white male field.
Seriously. That’s what it was about. A guy was upset his girlfriend wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.
But a lot of mostly white male gamers latched onto the conflict and it became about female encroachment into male space. Again, this is ridiculous. Women already played games en masse. The call — as it were — was coming from inside the house. But white men, not understanding what discrimination really was, wanted a reason to be angry and special and so this imagined influx of women into gaming became a cause. No one was threatening white men, videogames are still made with sexist and racist themes, men can play videogames to their heart’s content, and there was no caravan of women illegally crossing the border into the sacred utopia of gaming man-land (just as there was no violent caravan of migrants bent on illegally crossing into the US).
Radicalization can result from psychologically externalized personal failure and the narrative for a lot of these movements including Nazism is exactly that. White people, primarily white men but also a lot of white women aren’t for whatever reason doing well, but see select minorities either doing well or successfully putting on a brave face and they decide that their own personal failure or even just perceived or relative failure is not due to a downturn in the economy or their own lack of degrees or skills or work, but minority groups accessing and using up limited resources before and instead of them.
This is how populism works. A would be leader finds the aggrieved but powerful majority and tells them that their failure to live up to a certain standard is due to greed, incompetence, and cronyism from the reigning “establishment,” who further is preferencing a given minority group over the majority. It comes down to “they are taking your things and benefitting from your work, and you are getting nothing in return.”
That is an attractive message and everyone from Nazis to BernieBros to Proud Boys to KKK members have fallen for it. “It’s not your fault and you have a right to be angry,” is an attractive message.
Unfortunately, it’s not a productive message. Because the next step is “reclaiming your heritage/rights/living room/country,” usually through violence. And, of course, since said violence was based on a flawed premise, it’s not only violent and horrific, but it ultimately serves no actual purpose.
Fascists have incredibly dark and violent fantasies. Despite almost invariably belonging to the hegemonic group and under absolutely no threat, they labour under the pretence that they’re being either outbred or that there is an active genocide against them. This allows them to justify violence against women — who must be controlled for breeding purposes according to them — and the nebulous “other,” even if the nebulous other happens to be an innocent child. But they take it even further. Fascists often justify extreme violence against themselves and members of their own “in group.” They encourage and even idolize mass shooters who then take their own life.
There is no logic or rationale behind either the violent behaviour or fantasies. Sadly, fascists understand violence — any violence — as a display of strength and are therefore afraid to question violence or stop committing it.
There is no easy way of thoroughly defeating fascism. If you counter it with violence even violence in self-defence, fascists will use that action to justify further violence. If you negotiate with them as an actual group you both give them legitimacy and put yourself in a position where the negotiation cannot possibly progress because what they want is for you not to exist. The only way of defeating them is going to Michelle Obama’s mantra and fully embracing the strength that “when they go, low we go high,” requires.
Fully purging fascism from our system requires rehabilitating each individual fascist. And that sucks. Not only does it suck because these people have done truly revolting racist and sexist things for no reason other than as an expression of their misdirected resentment, but it sucks because fascists are fundamentally irrational. There is no such thing as a logical autocrat. You can have a despot who utilizes autocracy or fascism or populism to gain and maintain power, but you cannot have a base of logical or rational fascists.
That means, as with people who are delusional and as with gaslighters you have to hold on to reality while not immediately threatening or succumbing to their dark and weird fantasy.
There is hope. There are ex-white supremacists. There are reformed Nazis. Former members of the KKK have realized the damage they have done and rededicated their lives to the advancement of civil rights and equality. But if you’re truly Antifa you have to have Michelle Obama’s endless strength and patience.