Public rallies on polarising issues have become platforms for far-right extremists to gain screen time and attract new members, experts in right-wing extremism have said.
Members of the National Socialist Network (NSN) attended an anti-trans rally in Melbourne over the weekend and caught widespread attention due to their provocative use of the Nazi salute.
Experts told The New Daily that neo-Nazi groups feel emboldened and beyond the reach of law enforcement, but said their increased visibility was not a sign of rising Nazism.
“These extremists are not trying to change the political landscape, but rather to project strength and group cohesion as a recruitment drive,” Deakin University associate professor of politics Josh Roose said.
Although most Australians were disgusted by their actions, the extremists targeted a small percentage of people, particularly men, who may be attracted to their message, he said.
Far-right extremism is not limited to urban areas. It is also prevalent in rural regions where young men are disengaged due to growing inequality and insufficient social institutions, Dr Roose said.
The combination of patriotism and identity politics found in far-right ideology can resonate with people who might not be exposed to diversity.
Dr Roose said the rise of far-right extremism was a global phenomenon, and was particularly common in the United States.
Both European and US traditions have influenced Australia, and the rise of social media and encrypted messaging apps has made it easier for extremist ideas to spread.
‘Fear and scarcity’
Tom Tanuki, a commentator on fringe and radical politics, said that a climate of fear and scarcity was contributing to Nazism in Australia.
He said real-world concerns such as climate change, economic disparity and growing distrust in institutions of power, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have created an environment ripe for fascist recruitment.
“Fascists thrive on a climate of fear and scarcity. They capitalise on these fears by inventing common enemies to blame for a sense of scarcity, galvanising people behind a shared fear of other groups,” he said.
“The enemies are rarely [anything] more than demonised individuals making up powerless, marginalised minorities.”
The recent protests have raised concerns about the handling of such events by Victorian police, with some accusing law enforcement of protecting neo-Nazis.
“The optics of them being protected by Victorian police does not look good,” Dr Roose said.
“[Police] may well be doing their job and keeping the peace, but there is certainly a level of outrage amongst the wider community and awareness of what [Nazism] entails and the need to reject it.”
He said it was important for law enforcement to effectively manage protests to prevent violence and conflict in the streets.
“[Neo-Nazis] are drawing their directions and tactics directly from the United States where far-right extremists are targeting trans events … they are actually going and patrolling and literally seeking to physically intimidate and coerce people, who are trans rights activists, into shutting down their events.”
Neo-Nazi protesters gather at a transgender rights rally at Parliament House in Melbourne. Photo: AAP
Dr Andre Oboler is the CEO of Online Hate Prevention Institute and he said governments needed to enact laws banning the glorification of Nazism urgently.
Nazi salute ban
The Victorian government announced it would fast-track a ban on the Nazi salute following the weekend’s rally.
“We need to move beyond banning individual symbols. So long as we stick with this approach, the Nazis can stay one step ahead of the law,” he said.
“We need to tackle the spread of the underlying ideology. Other countries have laws that ban the glorification of Nazism and use of Nazi symbols. They give police the discretion to determine when actions may breach such laws, and let the courts judge the breaches. We should do the same.”
Mr Tanuki argues against expanding legislative and police powers to address this issue.
He said such measures have historically been used against progressive movements rather than thwarting fascists.
“The brutality and over-reach of law enforcement and government officials often enflame the anxieties that fascists use to recruit with,” he said.
“We need to stop daydreaming that more laws will fix the problem of these scumbags for us.
“We need a healthier, organised, activist left. Anti-fascists need to bind together and show up more because we ruined the patriot movement, which was enormous, so yes, we can definitely annihilate a scattering of violent neo-Nazis, too.”