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Fascism and Teenage Boys: A Love Story

If the Covington Catholic students are victims of anything, it's a reactionary cultural force — the fascist-leaning right — that grooms and manipulates young men

Back in the spring of 2016, months before a shock election plunged us into an age of chaos, people spoke of candidate Trump as a fascist in the making. His rallies were marked by roiling, feverish hate; he attacked the free press and flouted laws; he pledged to destroy his opponents once in power. Some academics and commentators, however, warned us against using the F-word to describe this demagogue.

In a piece that now reads as painfully quaint, Vox quoted a number of fascism experts to assure us that Trump wasn’t a true fascist, just a right-wing populist. It said that Trump, unlike a real fascist, didn’t reject democracy. (Two years later, the same writer published an article with a headline declaring that “Trump has eroded democratic institutions,” and many savvy political thinkers agree.) It argued that Trump didn’t emphasize violence for its own sake — though his fixation on carnage says otherwise, as does a Vox video titled “Donald Trump’s message is violent to its core,” awkwardly embedded right under the column. It noted that Trump’s individualism runs counter to fascist collectivism, and that besides, “there aren’t that many real fascists left,” ignoring both the unitary power of his fanatical base and a rather obvious truth: You can always create more fascists.

That’s where the kids come in.

The ‘Indoctrination of Youth’

Fascism, as the textbooks prefer to define it, was born in Italy amid the trauma of World War I. It drew inspiration from antiquity — Plato, Spartan warriorhood, the conquering Roman Empire — but a key influence was futurism, a radical cultural movement that romanticized brutality, speed and machines. The futurists were disgusted by the ruins of classical civilization; they instead looked forward, of course, and so prized the new generation, which was bound to revolt against the old and decaying order.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of futurism, wrote admiringly of youth, and specifically a kind of youth that rejects the lessons of history: museums and libraries would stifle their ambition and beauty. All the same, the children would need to be instructed. In 1919, Marinetti envisioned “a school for physical courage and patriotism.” This ideal gave shape to Italy’s first fascist youth groups, the Opera Nazionale Balilla and Gioventù Italiana del Littorio, which soon became paramilitary wings with uniforms and anti-intellectual exercises. Professor Katharina Schembs of the University of Cologne writes that the model was borrowed in part from Britain’s Boy Scouts, though adapted for a totalitarian state: “[T]he indoctrination of youth as the future fascists was considered central, as the longevity of the regime was thought to depend on them.”

The Nazis concurrently established a youth arm, eventually banning any rival extracurricular groups (including the Boy Scouts) and making membership in the Hitler Youth mandatory for every non-Jewish boy in Germany. By 1939, at least 90 percent of these boys had joined. Absorbed from their families directly into the power structure of the Third Reich, they would go on to die by the millions in battle. This was by design: Fascism was a new, dynamic idea, with relatively young leaders, and construed even premature death as a kind of hope. As the late historian George L. Mosse, who escaped the Nazi regime, explained it: “Youth symbolized vigor and action; ideology was joined to fact. Fascist heroes and martyrs died at an early age in order to enter the pantheon, and symbolic representations of youth expressed the ideal type in artistic form.”

From the beginning, then, adolescents were much more than a vast resource for Hitler’s and Mussolini’s nation-building — they were the prime actors of the fascist mythos. Supposedly met with existential threats to their race, their home and their traditional way of life, they would be the ones to realize the modern glory of a superior people.

The Shield of Irony Is Fascist to the Core

We could split hairs all day about whether fascism has come to the United States, but let’s save ourselves the trouble: Trump has neither the consistency nor coherence to impose true fascist order. No matter how many migrant concentration camps his administration opens, regardless of how he hollows out and destabilizes the federal workforce, the pedants will always be able to say that our current model doesn’t match the budding dictatorships of early 20th-century Europe — because it can’t. History may repeat itself, but never note for note. The parallels we notice are bound to be inexact.

Which is not to say they can be dismissed.

Where the potential for fascist teens is concerned: No, there is no state-controlled equivalent to Italy’s militaristic youth groups, let alone the Hitler Youth. The American government has not directly conscripted our children into a narrative of blood and soil. What we do have is a fractured coalition of right-wing white supremacists, various subcultures that permit and encourage the admiration of fascist techniques. Take, for example, the MAGAsphere meme of “free helicopter rides” for those on the left, a reference to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s notorious “death flights” for dissidents in the 1970s. Pinochet himself is not widely considered a pure fascist — the political theorist Roger Griffin separates Pinochet’s illusion of public consensus from the genuinely popular ultra-nationalism that defines “generic fascism.” This is relevant in the case of Trump, a self-declared nationalist who likes to pretend he has the support of a vast majority despite earning 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Still, when you’re printing T-shirts with the premise of throwing Antifa (or anti-fascist) individuals out of helicopters, it seems safe to say that you’ve aligned yourself with fascist ideology.

Above you see the fruit of a notable strain in present far-right thought: content geared toward the “politically incorrect” trolls of 4chan’s /pol/ message board, some of whom typify the so-called “ironic Nazi” posture. Disdainful of anything approaching the civility prized by mainstream centrism, they mine the Holocaust and offensive stereotypes for “edgy” humor, i.e., sheer provocation absent intelligible commentary. The site’s user base, by the way, is taken to be overwhelmingly male and rather young: Wired places the mean age at 15, which is how old the founder was when he registered the domain.

The shield of humor or jokiness, lately rebranded as irony, is nothing all that groundbreaking. White supremacists like to think they’re pulling one over when they claim that they deploy Nazi jargon or the Sieg Heil salute as a goof, but it’s obvious to anyone with a handful of brain cells that this is the “crypto” in “crypto-fascism.” They mean it. In 1944, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave the definitive account of such deflection, which allows hate to flourish under the assumption that it is unserious.

Teenagers, rebellious and impulsive by nature, may be drawn to transgressive or “triggering” acts, particularly the kind that might be accommodated as mere youthful exuberance. The Wisconsin high school students who eagerly threw up Nazi salutes for a pre-prom photo were not punished. Below an accepted threshold of maturity — observed for white boys, of course, not brown ones — almost anything can be excused. Online, however, the distinction between these not-quite-earnest gestures and committed fascism is virtually nonexistent.

That ambiguity adds to the ranks. Lonely, troubled kids are radicalized in their desire to belong; they connect with similarly alienated peers and begin to view fascism as a necessary counter-culture, sometimes turning violent in order to fulfill an imagined destiny. Instagram is host to a #fascistlove hashtag, while Tumblr, a platform that has cracked down on pornographic material, remains a haven for neo-Nazis to champion fascism as a cool aesthetic: sleek, angular, uncompromising. Credulous media are happy to feed that line with profiles of “dapper” white nationalists. Right-wing media are happier still to harvest the fascist underworld’s meme-friendly racism and launder it into the mainstream.

In all this mess, it’s clear that the youth never stopped being the icons, the beacons, the central metaphor and the essential recruitment pool for fascism. From the historian Stanley G. Payne: “Fascist exaltation of youth was unique … in that it not only made a special appeal to them but also exalted youth over all other generations, without exception, and to a greater degree than any other force based itself on generational conflict.” This is the very tissue that connects racist nationalism to real fascism, ubiquitous in the messaging. It’s in the white supremacist slogan known as the 14 Words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Or, if you like, try an apposite quote from an actual member of Congress:

And to think some people say that age is just a number.

The MAGA Teens Did What They Were Trained to Do

This past week, Americans have been obligated to parse a wealth of footage recorded outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Unsurprisingly, your interpretation of these assorted videos and their subjects — a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, an elder Native American veteran and activist named Nathan Phillips, and a throng of white boys visiting from the affluent Northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati, where they attend the private, all-male Covington Catholic High School — depended on where and when you encountered it, not to mention your deepest political convictions. That the boys mocked and taunted Phillips is undeniable, whatever the subsequent efforts to spin their behavior. It’s also worth noting the similarities to a street fight initiated last October by the white supremacist Proud Boys gang (note the name): Conservative voices attempted to paint the right-wingers as proportionately responsive to leftist violence, instead of as the aggressors they were.

With the Covington boys, the confrontation is perhaps less important than its circumstances.

The story buried under this viral controversy is that Covington Catholic annually buses their students to the March for Life, a mass demonstration against women’s rights — namely, the right to terminate a pregnancy. Unfathomably rotten with systemic sexual abuse they can’t seem to root out, the Catholic Church nevertheless manages to devote certain energies to contesting the legality of abortion, and their indoctrinated youth, fully convinced this medical procedure is a sin, make loyal soldiers for the cause. It’s possible they’ve never been exposed to a different view. Private schools — inherently anti-democratic — stand as influential alternatives to standardized public education, free to promote toxic morals or make anti-intellectual appeals to emotion, just as the early fascist youth groups did. The Christian schools in particular can breed a hostile argument, an us-versus-them mindset that, in Covington Catholic’s case, has spawned a legacy of institutionalized homophobia, misogyny and racism. Last year, their gay valedictorian was banned from speaking at graduation. One student, appearing on Fox & Friends, defended the use of blackface as “school spirit.”

Conservatives claimed these boys were victims, and they were closer to the truth than they understood. It’s not that the teens were provoked into their obnoxious jeering; there’s ample evidence that they were spoiling for an altercation all day, even catcalling random women who crossed their path. No, the Covington Catholic students are victims of a reactionary cultural force that positions them as innocent pawns. The fascist-leaning right couldn’t have asked for better ambassadors, because the boys’ contempt and disturbing conduct may be easily brushed aside as a misunderstanding.

But it’s not. It’s their message. They did what they were trained to do by adults, the parents and teachers who impressed upon them the inferiority and insignificance of anyone who isn’t male, white, Christian or Republican. Adults who justify the suffering of others as their own personal success — and continued survival. What’s funny is we might never have seen the kids’ faces and learned their names were it not for their uniform: Many wore “Make America Great Again” hats, explicit endorsements of a president whose xenophobic rhetoric contains the seeds of a fascist reawakening. Despite the inconvenience of a shutdown, Trump reportedly hopes to meet with them.

At which point we would see, again, the value of an obedient child — nothing less than eternal youth.