HARTFORD — Get used to the term “identitarianism.”
Christopher Vials, associate professor of English and director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut, told an audience at the Charter Oak Cultural Center Thursday night that the identitarian movement, a 21st century variation of fascism, needs scrutiny because it has spread from Europe to American alt-right groups — and from there into the Trump administration.
“It has begun to filter into presidential rhetoric in various ways,” he said.
The movement relies heavily on a sense that “white” or “western” culture is being repressed in a time when other racial groups are encouraged to celebrate theirs, Vials said.
“The idea goes something like this: ‘Well, people of color have ways to express and celebrate their identity, but white people don’t.’” (“Trust me,” Vials said in aside. “You can take classes on Shakespeare and European history at UConn. This is not being suppressed.”)
And while racist groups in the U.S. have historically used distinctly American symbols like the Confederate flag and Ku Klux Klan robes, the new ones “are more in direct dialogue with Europe,” Vials said. “Which means that they’re in a direct dialogue with more explicit forms of fascism.”
Some of the symbolism and terminology has become transatlantic, according to Vials. He pointed to the 2006 film “300,” which was based on a graphic novel that depicted the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The story of 300 Spartans defending Greece against an invasion by hordes of Persians from the east has resonated with identitarians — so much so that many have adopted the symbol seen on the Spartans’ shields, the Greek letter lambda, as an icon for social media identities.
Vials, who is the co-author of the forthcoming “U.S. Antifascism Reader,” also discussed the “spatial component” of the movement. “It says, ‘Not only do we need a space in which to express our identities, we need to have our own autonomous white space.’ It becomes an argument for a white ethno-state.”
“The argument goes, ‘We are fine with Islam. Muslims are fine practicing Islam somewhere else — just not in Europe or the United States.’”
“Multiculturalism is evil [to identitarians] because it imagines diversity as a bunch of different peoples in one place,” Vials said. That would result in the thing they fear the most: “mixing and homogenizing the world into one mongrel planet.”
While identitarians will talk positively of diversity, Vials described their vision of diversity as separate groups of people occupying their own spaces. They use terms like “cherishing differences,” he said, but their supposed anti-racism is in bad faith because their websites and literature simultaneously argue — though not always overtly — that some races are inferior to others. One of the movement’s giveaways in this regard is pointing to news articles depicting immigrant and refugee crime. Vials said those references are meant to imply that the groups involved are inferior and need to be kept away. Vials warned that while identitarian groups espouse a carefully drawn ideology, “they operate on something much more visceral” and ultimately rely on violence to achieve their objectives.
Identitarians “ultimately see it as a struggle for existence in which spaces cannot be shared, one group has always got to dominate another,” according to Vials. “They see race as a zero-sum game.” Ultimately realizing their vision “would require an immense amount of violence.”
Vials argued that the reach of identitarianism and ethno-pluralism into the Trump administration became apparent in the President’s addresses to the United Nations General Assembly in 2017 and 2018. Both were written by Trump aide Stephen Miller, whom Vials described as “immersed” in the movement.
In the 2017 speech, Trump emphasized every nation’s right to sovereignty: “We reject the ideology of globalism, we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. Around the world, responsible nations must defend against the threats to sovereignty … The United States will not tell you how to live, work, or worship. We only ask you to honor our sovereignty in return.”
Vials said the ethno-pluralism in those words becomes clear when remembering that at the same time, Trump was pulling the U.S. out of the U.N. Human Rights Council — the first time any country had voluntarily withdrawn from the body. “He denounced the very idea of human rights, because for him it was tied to this universalistic, multicultural globalism that sees everybody in the world in the same way and reduces everybody to a set of abstract equivalents.”
“It’s basically this idea of, ‘Don’t touch our sovereignty … You can do your thing over there, the United States gets to do whatever the hell it wants, to define humanity however the hell it wants, in its own sovereign space.’ That’s new.”
Vials’ works include “Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States.”