Once social media began to get ugly this weekend — well, uglier than usual — I made my best decision in a long time and got off. I spent the day doing chores, which included a trip to a big box store crammed with people of many races and ethnicities. These people, I imagine, went about their daily business without wondering if they were dealing with Nazis or Antifa. That is the way most Americans live almost all of the time. Allowing our corrosive political discourse to infect these lives any more than necessary would be a tragedy.
Yet I’m not sure how our debates can get any healthier if we keep using extremists as proxies in our partisan warfare. Charlottesville is where identity politics lead.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Nazis, skinheads, the Klan, and white supremacists have been marching for decades. They represent a minute faction of our political makeup. They wield no real power. They have no future. What kind of support do a few hundred khaki-clad Nazi flag-bearers really have even now? Little. The problem is that Nazis are too valuable a political cudgel to ignore.
Last November, when 150 — 150 — “alt-Right” Nazi types attended a conference in DC, the media sent 150 people to cover them. The event, which had been going on for years without much notice, received coverage from nearly every major outlet. It got far more attention than the March for Life, a rally of tens of thousands of pro-life Americans every year, could ever hope to attract. In fact, it got more attention than thousands of conferences all over the country, many infused with one political or ideological perspective or another.
Coverage not only skews our understanding of the alt-right’s size, it empowers them. At the very least, the spotlight seems like a perfect time for people of goodwill to create unity in the face of hate. Politics has made that virtually impossible. It is simply too tempting for many on the Left to dishonestly conflate white supremacy with conservatism. Obviously, to some extent, this has been part of their rhetoric for a long time. This new obsession, however, allows them to act as if a GOP-run government that can’t even pass a tepidly conservative bill is in the middle of Gleichschaltung.
How can we put the influence of swastika-carrying would-be stormtroopers into proper perspective when liberals act as if they’re a traditional voting bloc that lines up behind Paul Ryan, John McCain, or Mike Lee? (Even when GOPers unequivocally do this, some in our unbiased press question their motivations; because Republicans can’t really be nothing more than anti-Nazi.) Does anyone really believe that a large chunk of the country is sympathetic to the aims of “blood and soil”?
Yes, I get that there’s a massive double standard in the coverage of political violence. The hypocrisy is immense. Listening to coverage of Charlottesville and rise of political violence, you might never know that a progressive tried to assassinate Republican congressional leadership only a couple of months ago.
When was the last time Democrats — even self-declared socialists — were expected to denounce the leftist violence of campus or anti-capitalist protesters? Why does no one dare utter a word of condemnation about the violence of some in the Black Lives Matter movement? Why do so many on the Left go out of their way to protect an anti-Semite who helps lead its populist wing? Why is someone like Al Sharpton, a man who was spurring on a pogrom in Brooklyn a few decades ago, now quoted approvingly by Buzzfeed for his fight against bigotry?
Most liberals demand that you denounce extremists for whom you bear absolutely no responsibility because it’s a small way for them to make you own it in some way. So what? Doing what Democrats want you to do, or don’t want you to do, or secretly want you do, shouldn’t dictate where you stake a moral position. If you’re going to demand that liberals unequivocally condemn hateful ideologies and their practitioners, you shouldn’t have any trouble offering a full-throated condemnation of Nazis (including, at least one terrorist.)
Certainly you shouldn’t engage in Trump’s initial pro forma, moral relativism regarding “many sides.” His statement, in and of itself, might be true. But considering the circumstances that were unfolding this weekend, there was no reason to offer some abstract platitudes about “violence.” It was a (tragic) opportunity to call out Nazis and distance himself from the alt-Right. There will be plenty of opportunities to denounce Antifa in the future. Plenty of times to denounce the leftist authoritarians on campuses. By all means, call out the mobs who think they have the right to vandalize statues they don’t like. But his positioning this weekend was reminiscent of what some liberals do when condemning “violence” when Islamic terrorism strikes. It was a cop-out.
Trump’s election was the confluence of a great number of events that had far less to do with white nationalism than most Democrats contend. And, yes, no matter what he does or says, many in the media will find some reason to feign horror. But at some point, Trump’s fans also have to stop making excuses for his reticence on these matters. Whether he means it or not, the president imbues these groups with a power they shouldn’t possess. He peddles identity politics, as well.
So the media will keep giving racists outsized coverage. Trump helps creates stories that shouldn’t exist because he is either clueless or an accomplice. The Left continues to smear all conservatives with them. And slowly everyone begins to be pulled into this orbit. Sooner or later, though, what began as partisans plying whatever partisan angle they’re plying turns into something that can’t be fixed.
When I write “Charlottesville” in the headline, I only mean the context of the rioting this past weekend. It’s otherwise a lovely town.