The outrage over the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia this past Saturday is palpable. The stunning images of torch-bearing white nationalists and mass chaos at a White nationalist rally have brought a torrent of withering criticism directed squarely at the White House, where Donald Trump missed a blatant opportunity to swiftly condemn violence carried out by self-identified neo-Nazis and armed militia members.
However, put in the context of Trump’s history, nationalist rhetoric and the company he keeps in Washington, the feeling of shock at such a political failure subsides quickly. While the rally and its violent aftermath are unsettling to persons of conscience, we must not ignore the fact that such outward racism is engrained in U.S. society and does not represent a new phenomenon.
Unless a moral countermovement can be formed outside of the left-right political divide, the shadowy elements that have embraced Nazism and the need for a white ethnostate will only increase their ability to draw numbers and amplify their toxic message.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, fringe groups from both the left and the right have stepped into the spotlight in unprecedented ways, emboldened by the space created as a result of the nationalist strain infecting the White House. Most prominently, far-right reactionary groups have taken a public stand in promoting their jingoistic, xenophobic viewpoints.
In large part, this is due to the very real changes in the contours of the left-right political binary. Significant elements of the far-left have embraced identity politics as a mechanism of achieving social justice, flirting with postmodernism and pushing political correctness to the extremes. Many parts of the far-right are reacting to this tendency by embracing objectively fascistic ideals and doubling down on the notion of the ‘need’ to defeat multiculturalism for the perceived sake of Western civilization, which fundamentally amounts to a thinly veiled attack against Islam.
As a result, hardly a week seems to go by without a clash between self-identified white nationalists and Antifa (anti-fascist) members, both as ideologically opposed as two groups could get. In a bizarre shift of ideological roles, the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ (not a monolithic group by any means) has come to view itself as the true vanguard of what were traditionally progressive domains — chiefly, an embrace of Enlightenment values such as free speech, rationality, and scientific inquiry.
The popular view of the far-left is one opposed to such values in favor of a social constructivist view that throws such principles to the wind by declaring everything to be subjective. This reorientation has left space for truly ugly characters to emerge, with neo-Nazis topping that list.
There is very little in the historical record where the ordinary individual would find absolute consensus with their peers — but I would venture to say that agreement on the horrific, inhumane behavior of the Nazis is about as universally accepted as the notion of gravity.
This is what makes Trump’s reaction truly shocking in its utter and crass shallowness. Initially, Trump chose to sidestep the entire issue, condemning violence on “both sides” and avoiding any sense of moral responsibility. It is somewhat trivial to note that violence can and did come from the other side — Antifa members have in the past hypocritically used quasi-fascistic behavior (i.e. violence) to suppress oppositional viewpoints. But placing them on the same playing field as far as general culpability in Saturday’s violence was extraordinary in the worst possible sense.
The resultant outrage, including from senior members of his own Republican party, pushed the administration to issue a more direct statement on the specific violence perpetrated by the supremacists, but by then, the damage was already done. Trump’s late-game mea culpa is unlikely to achieve much, as white nationalists took comfort in the fact that their man in DC did not immediately condemn them, and they will likely interpret his reversal as merely the result of moralizing peer pressure.
Trump’s latest reversal of his revised statement during an extraordinary press conference on Tuesday only confirms the fact that he, at some level, sympathizes with the far-right protesters and seeks to absolve them of any responsibility. What we witnessed was nothing short of a defense of white supremacists and those aligned with Neo-Nazi movements by the most powerful political figure in the world.
The accused perpetrator of the Charlottesville vehicle attack, James Alex Fields Jr., had no trouble publicly identifying as a white ethno-nationalist, and many former friends and teachers noted his passion for Nazism being an integral part of his identity in high school. Ultimately, he was compelled to act upon the violent tendencies inherent in Nazism. It is not difficult to draw a line between Trump’s legitimization of violence — look back to his campaign rallies — and Fields’ rationalization that violence should be used to shut down anti-racist protesters.
Here too, the reaction from the executive branch has been met with intense reaction with its profound delay in labelling the attack as “domestic terrorism,” which it is by even the most simple interpretation. Many note, as is often the case when such acts are committed by white suspects, that there would have been no such hesitation if the suspect had been a self-identified jihadist.
There is certainly merit to that claim, especially when juxtaposed to the extreme Islamophobia held by certain members of the administration — namely advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. Their position — a “Clash of Civilizations” view on Western values and Islam — has fueled the virulent focus on combating Islamic extremism, going so far as to consider hollowing out federal Countering Violent Extremism efforts to focus only on the jihadist threat at the expense of other totalitarian, nationalist, or supremacist movements.
Note that in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on the dangers of homegrown right-wing terror, stating, “white supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy.” While the report was heavily criticized by conservatives at the time for overshadowing the Islamic terror threat, it has proved to have been prescient, with far-right terror acts outnumbering those inspired by jihadism since 2001.
This undercurrent of far-right extremism has existed for many decades — which is why it is important not to view Charlottesville as a one-off event — but its resurgent public face is perhaps what is most disturbing about what has taken place. We have to contend with the fact that Nazi symbols and paeans to the confederacy are front and center in major media outlets, and that we are discussing notions of countering white supremacy following eight years of the nation’s first black president.
One would like to think that the sight of Confederate flags or Nazi insignia armbands was more a display of historical ignorance rather than a full-throated embrace of pure authoritarianism or supremacy, but this new generation of fascists seems remarkably educated in their extreme hate. According to one of the far-right rally planners, “This is our [far-right] ’60s movement.”
These organizers are schooling themselves in leftist/popular mobilization tactics, and with either the direct or indirect support of the White House, are stepping into the spotlight without much fear of recrimination. After all, a figure like former KKK leader David Duke has re-emerged in the zeitgeist in a way which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
There are undoubtedly broader discussions to be had — about the nature of racism itself, and how it persists across generations. There is great need to discuss the merits of removing statues depicting unfavorable aspects of history, which may prevent an accurate confrontation of the past — to glean its lessons, an exercise that is sorely needed in the current climate.
Unfortunately, one would be remiss to believe we will not bear witness to similar acts of despicable violence. Whether right or wrong, many look to the U.S. presidency as a moral barometer, a force that will stand on the side of the oppressed and speak out against blatant forms of evil. That factor is sadly missing, and this administration’s “silence followed by backpedaling” technique is taking political and moral bankruptcy to a new level.
There is not even much of a debate here. In the face of neo-Nazi brutality, the president of the United States — the country that was instrumental in defeating Nazism — deliberately created immense problems for himself and the nation he is supposed to lead. Healing the societal divide that was laid bare in Charlottesville now seems like a distant prospect, as feelings of shock and shame at our elected leader’s apologies roll across the country.
If there is any hope in reversing this sad state of affairs, we must radically confront ourselves to determine what kind of society we hope to live in and leave behind for future generations. Holding up that mirror is a monumental task, but in failing to do so we will have to resign ourselves to living with the ugliest depths of American society.