Punching Fascists: Reflections on an American Tradition

The day of President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, Richard Spencer was punched in the head during a live interview by a black bloc anarchist. For those who don’t know, Richard Spencer is the intellectual “mastermind” of the alt-right, made famous by Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Bannon while he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart.com. Spencer is also the Director of the National Policy Institute, which, despite its completely innocuous-sounding name, is a far-Right white nationalist think tank. Shortly after getting forearmed during that interview, during a later interview, Spencer was punched AGAIN!

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Spencer became more widely known by the American public after a video surfaced of his keynote address at a white nationalist conference held in Washington, DC after Trump was elected President. In the video Spencer, among other grotesque claims, says “Heil Trump!” while members of the audience are seen doing the Nazi salute.

Over the past few days, the Internet and social media have been debating whether it is okay to punch Nazis, with many liberals and progressives taking stock of their own personal affective joy in seeing Spencer getting what he deserves in the form of a fist to the head, are also suggesting that even though he deserves it, violence is not okay, not even when it comes to punching Nazis (several of these pieces are linked to in the third to last paragraph of this article). While we can and probably should debate the ethics of it, punching or even killing fascists is as American as apple pie. World War II anyone?

Our culture is also rife with well-known and well-received examples of American heroes punching Nazis—the worst kind of fascist.

Captain America punched Nazis, including Adolf Hitler himself on this cover from 1940 (a year before the US would officially enter the war):

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Captain America’s running antagonist Red Skull was often portrayed as a Nazi or actively working with the Nazis. Captain America punched him many times in and out of his Nazi regalia:

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Even Captain America’s side-kick Bucky Barnes got in on the action, punching Red Skull into Hitler. Americans have always liked two-for-one deals, and apparently this applies to punching fascists as well:

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While not as exciting as seeing Cap punch Hitler or Nazi-collaborator Red Skull, Batman and Superman threw rocks at the three fascist leaders of the Axis powers on this more propagandistic cover from 1943:

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Here’s a link to eighteen examples of comic book characters punching or otherwise assaulting Nazis (most of the time it’s Hitler).

The Nazi-punching tradition is equally common in American film.

Indiana Jones was another notorious puncher of Nazis. Not only does this bald Nazi get punched several times by Indiana Jones, but he also gets obliterated by an airplane propeller shortly thereafter:

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In fact, Indiana Jones punching Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was so popular, George Lucas decided to make another movie based on punching Nazis: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). In The Last Crusade, even honorary American Sean Connery (playing Indian Jones’ father) gets in on the action. The success of both of these films shows that Americans enjoy when fascists eat crow—and knuckle sandwiches.

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Brad Pitt seemed to become sexually aroused by killing Nazis in Inglorious Basterds (2009), a revenge fantasy film that fetishized punching, shooting, killing, and otherwise attacking Nazis:

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That was in the past though right? Wrong. Americans cheered across the country after the deaths of fascists like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Osama bin Laden. While these examples from the Middle East and northern Africa are more complicated cases (with respect to how fascistic their regimes were and which end of the political spectrum they were given their supposed association with Arab/Islamic socialism), they still represent the enduring American love affair with violence against, at the very least, anti-American authoritarians.

There are more examples too.  In the environmentalist children’s cartoon Captain Planet, a Hitlerian character gets an elbow to the gut by one of the Planeteers. Daffy Duck fights fascists in this Looney Tunes clip. The cult-classic video game franchise Wolfenstein is oriented around the killing of Nazis, and in the immensely popular Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010), there is a mode where you kill Nazi zombies (Really though, are there other kinds of Nazis?).

Let’s also keep in mind that the American Nazi-punching tradition enjoys a long history outside of World War II and its historical representations.

Americans clearly have a long-standing obsession with using violence against fascists—and rightfully so—as fascism stands against the best of American values, values we have had more than enough trouble living up to, even in the absence of any mass domestic fascist movement (the Trump campaign and Presidency notwithstanding).

Those who know me intellectually very likely know that I am a pacifist, through and through. I abhor violence and killing of all kinds, literally in all situations—even self-defense. Let me be very clear though, this pacifism is a purist, categorical ethical standpoint, not necessarily a reflection of any strategic perspective on the practical uses of violence, say by revolutionary movements.

The implications of this “quasi-pacifism” do not preclude the possibility that in certain cases violence may be politically justifiable as a pragmatic means to stop greater violences (but that is literally the only measure, if it actually accomplishes that goal without legitimizing violence in general).

That’s just my take though. The Nation, .Mic, among other sources have posted their perspectives on the use of violence against fascists and white supremacists. Vice even consulted the New York Times Magazine resident ethicist Randy Cohen. They don’t seem to be fans.

George Ciccariello-Maher on the other hand, who made national news due to his satirical tweet on Christmas Eve in 2016 calling for “white genocide” (a contrived concept invented by white supremacists and the alt-Right to describe various multicultural practices and policies including immigration, affirmative action, and interracial marriage), is a big fan of punching fascists. If anyone deserves to punch some fascists it’s him; after his now infamous tweet, he and his family received hundreds of death threats from white supremacist fascists online. Classy people those racist fascists are. It is worth noting that Drexel University, where Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Policy, condemned his tweet—but not the death threats against him and his family.

The neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer (which I am not linking to. If you want to give them clicks and are reading this, you probably have Google) has used this incident as a rallying cry for more violence against the Left—which is anyone to their left, politically.

The question remains, not whether punching fascists, Nazis, and die-hard misogynists and white supremacists is ethical, but rather whether it is a politically pragmatic approach to dealing with these kinds of people—as opposed to the counterrevolutionary demand that we “tolerate” them or else become hypocrites. I think there are good ethical and political reasons to reject the logic that we must tolerate the intolerant and certainly even better reasons to reject the demand that we tolerate the intolerable, but what are the consequences of using violence to oppose fascists? World War II anyone?

In the aftermath of his well-earned fists to the head, Richard Spencer said that he is now afraid to speak in public without security. Without deciding for you, I’ll simply say this: I won’t be losing any sleep if Richard Spencer and his ilk feel less comfortable speaking and gathering in public to spread their bigotry and hate.

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Courtesy of Twitter

*A special thanks is owed to Leo Collado, a friend and former student, who offered invaluable expertise on the many pop culture examples of punching fascists discussed here. He is a fount of anti-fascist expertise. This article is much improved for his many suggestions (only a portion of which make an appearance here).

 Featured Image Photo Credit: J. Peter Siriprakorn via Flickr Creative Commons