It was an ugly weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a vile hodgepodge of white nationalists and neo-Nazis rallied in protest of the planned removal of a statue honoring confederate general Robert E. Lee. They held torches, flew confederate and swastika flags, and chanted enthno-racist slogans such as, "Jews will not replace us." They were confronted, understandably, by horrified crowds who felt compelled to express their utter revulsion at the hate group. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the counter-demonstrators were so-called 'antifa' thugs, many of whom came spoiling for a fight. As violent skirmishes broke out, a young man and apparent Nazi sympathizer intentionally plowed his car into a group of protesters, injuring more than a dozen, and killing a young woman. This murder was an act of domestic terrorism, committed on dark day in America. Some disjointed reflections:
(1) The Alt-Right does not, and must not, represent American conservatism. Organizers dubbed their sickening gathering, 'Unite the Right,' which is a grotesque misnomer -- although it did unify virtually the entire right-of-center coalition in disgust, calumny, and scorn. Categorical denunciations from Republican lawmakers, GOP organizations and conservative thought leaders were swift and resounding. Some disingenuous lefties exploited the occasion to pretend that conservative attacks against the racists were either non-existent, insufficient, insincere or hypocritical. They demanded condemnations, then used those condemnations to bludgeon their political adversaries anyway; the veritable definition of bad faith. Sadly, this is true:
Remember, the "why aren't you denouncing this" game is one Republicans can never win & Democrats are almost never asked to play.— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) August 12, 2017
But this wasn't about appeasing the implacable. It was about telling the truth, loudly. It felt quite unseemly to lavish so much attention upon a tiny fringe of haters and misfits (as others have noted, this was a nationwide flashpoint for the Alt-Right, yet they could only attract a few hundred degenerates to their noxious gathering), but sometimes reverberating condemnations aren't merely appropriate; they're essential. Those of us who rightly lament the Left's abuse of terms like "racist" and "bigot" to demagogue prosaic policy disputes have a duty to call out the real thing. And this was the real, hideous thing.
(2) Much has been made of President Trump's tepid response to the upheaval -- which his supporters say was acceptably comprehensive, while critics charge that it was irresponsibly vague and weak. Count me among the critics on this one. I have no problem with the president criticizing abhorrent views and acts of violence from extremists on both sides of this divide, a point on which I'll elaborate further shortly. But Trump avoided naming names, choosing instead to mouth generalized disapproval of "hate" from "all sides." This nebulous formulation delighted the cretins at the Daily Stormer, a leading neo-Nazi publication, who viewed it as a generous wink of tacit approval:
Even if Trump intended exactly the opposite, his words were imprecise enough to allow this interpretation ("he didn't attack us...really, really good") to take root. Though others in the administration were less ambiguous, the president himself was not. It is also an embarrassment that it took multiple attempts for the White House to finally clarify that yes, the president condemns white supremacy -- and the spin offered up to explain away this disgrace was feeble and unconvincing. For instance, appearing on State of the Union, White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert asserted that Trump didn't target any particular groups because he didn't want to "dignify" them. This is not credible, especially considering how Trump operates. He is never one to shy away from searing, specific, venomous, personal attacks against anyone who raises his ire. So this excuse falls apart upon even cursory scrutiny. To wit, CNN's Jake Tapper pointed out that Trump was eager to "dignify" the ruthless gang MS-13 by blasting them at a recent public event in New York.
Furthermore, one of his standard election-era criticisms of President Obama and Secretary Clinton centered on their unwillingness to candidly identify the threat of radical Islamist terrorism. In an October presidential debate, Trump repeated the charge: "To solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name," he said. Indeed. That standard should apply to genuine racial bigotry, shouldn't it? The President of the United States has a moral obligation to forcefully and explicitly reject this sort of pernicious bile when it rears its head. With unrest building and tensions mounting, this president fell short of that obligation. Incidentally, if you're inclined to dismiss that analysis as just another "Never Trumper" picking nits, re-read the Nazis' celebratory reaction above, then consider that ardent Trump backers Newt Gingrich and Anthony Scaramucci share the instinct that the president's remarks did not go far enough. And so, evidently, does his daughter:
1:2 There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) August 13, 2017
It really shouldn't be this difficult, Mr. President. So "why does Trump do this?" asks Stephen Hayes in a scathing column, offering a menu of possible explanations: "Is he a racist? Merely sympathetic to the kind of racism embraced by the “alt-right”? Or is it simply his eagerness to criticize people who oppose him and praise—or at the very least, avoid criticizing—those who support him?" I'm heavily inclined toward the third option, despite being disturbed by his campaign's accommodation of the Alt-Right, as personified by Steve Bannon. (People who I know and trust who've worked for Bannon insist that he's not a white nationalist, but he's explicitly boasted about giving a large platform to the Alt-Right, which should be a source of shame). I believe Trump's reticence isn't some betrayal of latent bigotry, but rather a blend of his reflexive allergy to criticizing anyone who praises him, and his aversion to alienating a segment of his hardcore base. If that's right, it's a childish and craven calculus, resulting in a moral failure (see update).
(3) I've heard the objections: What about Antifa? Why doesn't the Left have to "own" them as the other side of this destructive coin? I don't disagree, and have excoriated their fascistic tactics on many occasions. Antifa's criminality and violence in Charlottesville, Sacramento, Berkeley, and elsewhere should be aggressively prosecuted, and prominent Democrats should be pressed to repudiate their tactics, rather than quasi-justifying them. But the depravity and destruction of Antifa's hordes does not 'cancel out' the profound evil of white supremacy and neo-Nazism. When one stares rank prejudice in the face, the proper response is not, yeah, that's bad, but what about this other bad thing over here? It is, yes, that's appalling and unacceptable, full stop. Some on the Left are right to decry "whataboutism" on this front. That said, avoiding debate-muddying false equivalency or blame shift does not require rational observers to avert their eyes from aggravating factors and other harmful actors. Arguments like this are specious and unhelpful:
When you read history of Nazi Germany, one of the chief arguments Hitler made was he was standing up to "violent leftists"— Gabriel Sherman (@gabrielsherman) August 13, 2017
So how, pray tell, might a normal, intellectually-honest person avoid a gratuitous Hitler comparison while reasonably pointing out that Antifa's violence is serious, and that their efforts to deny others' right to peaceably assemble are a real problem? Despite the framing above, one can articulate discrete thoughts about Antifa's malign influence without descending into cynical deflection or bogus equivalence. One should not pretend that certain realities don't exist. A New York Times reporter witnessed the other "side's" brutality and hatred firsthand:
2. The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding "antifa" beating white nationalists being led out of the park 2/2— Sheryl Gay Stolberg (@SherylNYT) August 13, 2017
She was promptly pummeled on liberal Twitter for making this narrative-disrupting observation, partially retreating from it in subsequent posts. But based on videos and photos of the clashes, her real-time observations were accurate. Independent of any assessment of the Alt-Right, the Alt-Left is also a national poison. If Americans' shared goal is the ongoing fostering of a more perfect union, cancerous influences within the racial Right and the anarchist Left should be excised from our polity. We can loathe both fringes for different reasons, but that doesn't make either mob any less loathsome. National Review's superb editorial has this exactly right:
Just as leaders on the left have a special responsibility to acknowledge and publicly reject the armed violence of the so-called antifa — who did indeed commit their own share of violence in Charlottesville — those on the right who are touched and sullied by factional overlap with the white-power ranters owe it to themselves, and to the principles they purport to advocate, to make it entirely clear where they stand...We categorically repudiate not only the specific acts of violence but also the broader cause in which this violence was deployed...We do not wish to be united with Jew-hater, bigots, racists, and the morally and intellectually defective specimens on such sad display in Charlottesville, waving their Nazi banners and Confederate flags...Responsible parties on both sides — which, in spite of what you may see on television, still exist — can at the very least be honest about what is happening and unequivocal in their condemnation of it. The president has a special responsibility to set an example here, and we urge him to live up to it.
I'll leave you with this sentiment from a Democratic operative, variations on which were worrisomely prevalent across social media as Charlottesville's dystopian spectacle unfolded:
Parading lit torches through public parks is actually not the definition of the First Amendment, but thanks for that insight!— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) August 12, 2017
In fact, the First Amendment protects precisely those sorts of views and displays. Defending popular or marginally-objectionable speech is relatively easy. Our foundational principle is tested by execrable speech. Wretched ideas are protected by the constitution. So are repellant people. The impulse to "punch a Nazi" may be more appealing than the impulse to punch someone else, but we are a nation of laws. Nazi sympathizers and enthusiasts have a right to speak and assemble peaceably in America, as morally deformed as they may be. They are also not 'fair game' for physical violence. That's not how we do things here. I'll leave you with a striking photograph that captures the majesty of our principles standing tall, even amid the throes of human darkness:
It has since emerged that this picture was snapped at an earlier event in the city, but its symbolism applies powerfully to the events of this past weekend.
UPDATE - Here's my brief reaction to the president's statement this afternoon, including a response to complaints from some that by (finally) 'caving' to media demands, Trump still didn't earn himself any goodwill:
Strong statement.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) August 14, 2017
Better late than never. Really. The right thing, finally.
Belated clarity won't erase 2+ days of ambiguity & weakness.
You shouldn't condemn evil to satisfy implacable critics who will attack you regardless.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) August 14, 2017
You should do it because it's *right.* https://t.co/hP1HuuNRnT