The biggest topic in British political circles on Monday wasn’t the country’s impending departure from the European Union. It was milkshakes—or, rather, one milkshake in particular that was lobbed by a bystander in Newcastle at Nigel Farage, a Brexit Party candidate in the European Parliament elections later this week.
Farage, the spiritual leader of the Brexit movement, quickly used the lactic confrontation to blame politicians who oppose him. “Sadly some remainers have become radicalised, to the extent that normal campaigning is becoming impossible,” he wrote on Twitter shortly after the incident. “For a civilised democracy to work you need the losers consent, politicians not accepting the referendum result have led us to this.”
The former UKIP Leader isn’t alone. In recent weeks, other far-right figures running for European Parliament seats have been met with dairy-centric direct action. Anti-racist protesters have targeted Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defense League, with milkshakes on multiple occasions. Carl Benjamin, an alt-right YouTube personality who said last month he “wouldn’t even rape” a woman running against him, has been milkshaked (milkshaken?) four times in the past week.
Throwing a milkshake at someone is rude at worst. It may also qualify as assault in some jurisdictions, especially in the United States. British political and media figures condemned the incidents. Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said that politicians “should be able to go about their work and campaign without harassment, intimidation and abuse.” Tim Farron, the leader of the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, said, “I’m not laughing along with the attack on Farage. Violence and intimidation are wrong no matter who they’re aimed at. On top of that, it just makes the man a martyr, it’s playing into his hands.”
What these critiques misunderstand is why milkshaking is so potent against Farage and his brethren: It humiliates them. Nothing animates the far right or shapes its worldview quite so much as the desire to humiliate others—and the fear of being humiliated themselves. It’s why alt-right trolls, projecting their own sexual insecurities, enjoy calling their opponents “cucks.” It’s why they rally around blustery authoritarian figures like Donald Trump who cast themselves as beyond embarrassment, shame, or ridicule. They brandish humiliation like a weapon while craving release from it.
Getting doused in a milkshake robs far-right figures of the air of chauvinistic invulnerability that they spend so much time cultivating. They hunger to be taken seriously despite their racist views. They want to be described as dapper, to be interviewed on evening news broadcasts and weekend talk-show panels, and to be seen as a legitimate participant in the democratic process. Most politicians to the left of Enoch Powell would brush off milkshaking as a harmless stunt. For those seeking mainstream legitimacy, it’s another searing reminder that they don’t belong.
That’s why so many on Britain’s far-right fringes are using the phrase “political violence” to describe milkshaking. It’s true that it qualifies in the most technical sense of the term—it’s political and it’s violent. But the descriptor is a gross exaggeration, especially in the country where a far-right gunman assassinated Jo Cox, a Labour member of Parliament, shortly before the Brexit referendum three years ago. (When the results came in, Farage quipped that the Leave movement had won “without a single bullet being fired.”) Its usage almost seems designed to dilute the term’s significance and meaning.
Behind the terminology also lies an implicit threat: Political violence will be met with political violence. “I’m strongly warning against normalizing political violence,” Kurt Schlichter, a Townhall columnist, wrote on Twitter. “I find it especially unwise considering the side being attacked has the vast majority of people who are good at violence.” Former Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam warned that the far right had “kept its collective cool” over the past few years, but with enough milkshakes, “they’ll start doing things back.” Katie Hopkins, a far-right British polemicist, placed milkshaking in the same category as acid attacks and stabbings.
The overreaction to milkshaking, and the British establishment’s handwringing over it, recalls a similar debate in the United States two years ago over Antifa. The anonymous leftist movement rose to national prominence in 2017 for its willingness to physically confront white nationalists when they appeared in public. Perhaps the most famous incident came during Trump’s inauguration when a masked figure sucker-punched Richard Spencer during an on-camera interview. The clip quickly became a meme on Twitter, one shared widely among those hostile toward Spencer’s views.
Spencer, who calls for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of the United States, told The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood a few months later that he has “a right as a citizen to walk the streets and not be attacked, and I have the right to be protected.” Wood wrote that Spencer “sounded vulnerable” after the experience. He told the journalist that he suffered a ruptured eardrum in the attack. Antifa protesters later sparred with far-right demonstrators during protests in Berkeley, at anti-racist rallies in Boston, and outside the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Commentators debated over whether it was okay to “punch Nazis.” New York magazine’s Jesse Singal argued that violence against white nationalists would feed into their narrative of victimization and ultimately strengthen them in the long run. The Boston Globe’s Cathy Young warned that Nazi-punching “is likely to lead to escalation of political violence across the board.”
These predictions have not borne fruit. While there are multiple factors behind the decline in white-nationalist rallies and marches, their fear of public clashes with Antifa appears to be one of them. The Unite the Right sequel rally last August drew fewer than two dozen people to a public square in Washington, D.C. They were faced with thousands of local counter-protesters, as well as a few dozen masked members of Antifa. The effect was intimidating and profound.
What the far right fears more than anything else isn’t a defeat at the ballot box or a temporary setback in policymaking. It’s the sting of shame that comes from being humiliated in public. I personally oppose violence in all forms, so I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to throw a milkshake at the nearest racist I encounter. But I don’t need to believe in it to recognize how effective it is at shaming the far right.