President Trump’s incompetent and mealy-mouthed equivocations of Nazi and Antifa violence in Charlotesville have furthered the already substantial American political divide. While many Americans were alarmed to see Nazi thugs excused by the President of the United States, other Americans were relieved to see Antifa condemned, which they view as a significant threat to democracy and freedom. In this view, Trump’s response is explained not so much by racism or widespread support for the KKK, as by a fear of what Antifa is believed to stand for.
There is first considerable convergence among the respectable left and right. Nazis, Klansmen and other actual white supremacist organizations are the avowed enemy of society and harbour ideas that are destructive to human decency and to the fabric of society. It is understood that our current peaceful and prosperous international order (by historical terms) emerged precisely from the crushing defeat of such a movement. That movement, whose aspirations are indelibly burned into our collective conscious in the hideous images of the concentration camps, can never again be allowed to approach power and influence. In that sense, the need to “keep the lid on” right-wing extremism is justified given its historic crimes and potential for destruction, as well as the fact that many of its current members continue to use the symbols and language of fascism.
However, there is a key difference between the left and right. For many on the left, white supremacist organizations remain a continued threat to democracy, freedom and equality. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League must be constantly vigilant to monitor society for hate. The current structures of American society today are thought among many progressives to consistently reinforce white supremacy, and help foster unequal economic outcomes between white and black Americans.
For many on the centre-right, however, white supremacists, while disdained, have also been something of a bogeyman in recent decades. In this view, the actual numbers of modern Nazi party or other race-oriented white supremacist organizations have continued to see their numbers decline and their ability to influence policy in their favour has seemed virtually non-existent. Notwithstanding the lurid wishful-thinking of many social studies departments, the evidence that societal structures remain racist seems unconvincing, considering for example how Asian Americans have the highest average income or why people of so many races still want to move to the USA.
However, when actual, bona fide Nazis marched this summer in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and the President of the United States of America did not immediately and unequivocally denounce them, many people rightly found it alarming. For many on the left Trump’s attempts to mollify right-wing extremists confirmed their fears that there truly are many Americans who support Klansmen, Nazis or a white supremacist society.
Without question, white supremacist groups have seemed emboldened to speak out under Trump. Much of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration is seen as dog-whistling to large swaths of the population who want to “make America white again.”
However, the evidence that there are large swaths of the US population supporting Nazis or the KKK a white supremacist society is at best spotty given the past thirty years of US political history. That thesis is also unsupported by the voter support given to Barrack Obama. The question of institutional racism is a more complicated one, and certainly the swath of police violence against law abiding African Americans suggests this is still a very significant problem.
However, I believe Trump’s tactic to condemn Antifa in the same breath as Nazis reflects not so much dog-whistling to a massive, racist base as a deeper unease on the right at what they think the Antifa stands for.
The divide in the political spectrum again causes mutual incomprehension here. To most people on the respectable left, Antifa are viewed as criminal troublemakers who use the occasion of protesting to further their own anarchist agenda of violence and vandalism. Their presence is generally not welcome, as it foreshadows the degeneration of peaceful protest into tear gas, batons, and smashed chain store windows. However, Antifa is ultimately a small and inconsequential group whose threat pales in comparison to that of white supremacists.
For many on the right, including respectable conservatives who despise Nazis, they see something quite different. They observe how Antifa uses the lexicon of progressives (“Anti-Hate!”) and how Antifa has targeted a variety of conservative speakers at universities, not only Nazis. In short, they see in Antifa their fear of progressive capture of intellectual space, particularly at universities, and the perceived willingness among progressives to use intimidation or violence to enforce it. Those who view Antifa in this way are almost certainly many of the same people who, in Ross Douthat’s words, feared giving progressives the political power to match their cultural ascendency, and thus voted Trump to avoid a Clinton presidency and her attendant Supreme Court choices. For these folks, Antia may represent a similar if not greater threat to democracy than that of white supremacist organizations.
If one believes there is a method to Trump’s madness, this is likely it: Trump was reassuring a base that is not so much racist as it is afraid of progressive ascendancy. Of course, Trump is singularly unskilled at making coherent arguments and distinctions and his response served only to deepen the political and cultural divide.
Unfortunately, the tenor of the conversation and the quality of the current generation of US political leaders is likely to only lead us further down the abyss.