Published in the Times 15/8/17
It is a caricature of what happened in Charlottesville to call Trump and his supporters racists
President Trump has been on the defensive over his remarks about the disturbances in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the weekend. Clashes between fascist types and their opponents over the city’s removal of confederate monuments turned deadly when a presumed white supremacist drove a car into the counter-demonstrators, killing one person and injuring many others.
In response, Trump condemned the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides”. His failure until yesterday to single out the white supremacists for censure has provoked a storm of criticism, not least from Republicans.
Trump’s response was indeed inadequate. Much more worrying, though, was what actually happened. For this was not, as widely portrayed, a clash between fascists and anti-fascists. It was between two groups each of which perpetrate hatred and intolerance, stand against freedom and seek to impose their views of society and human nature by force.
The “unite the right” demonstration brought on to the streets neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other racist extremists. The sight of them marching with swastika flags and flaming torches was stomach-turning. But ranged against them were the “Antifa”, self-designated anti-fascists who are anything but. They have a record of unprovoked violence, rioting and thuggery. Their Black Lives Matter offshoot includes racists who incite violence against white people.
Since Trump’s ascendancy, there have been repeated outbreaks of violence, mostly perpetrated by Antifa against ordinary Republicans and other conservatives, either at pro-Trump rallies or on other public platforms. These people have been either stopped from speaking or physically attacked by Antifa and other left-wing demonstrators.
Such attacks on mainstream conservatives have been ignored, downplayed or even endorsed by Democrats and their media acolytes.
In June the House Republican whip, Steve Scalise, was shot and almost killed by a Bernie Sanders-supporting Democrat who opened fire on a group of Republicans at a baseball practice. A New Jersey Democratic party activist, James Devine, posted on his Facebook page that he had “little sympathy” for Scalise because he opposed gun restriction policies. Another Democratic party official in Nebraska was fired after saying he was “glad” that Scalise had been shot.
The real target is mainstream American values and culture
The Democratic establishment dismisses such people as mavericks with no significance for the left-wing causes they support. Yet a double standard operates against President Trump, who is held to be personally defined by the unacceptable nature of a tiny minority of his supporters.
The fact that the former Ku Klux Klan “grand wizard” David Duke, who was at Charlottesville, claims to support Trump’s agenda (that is, when he’s not in the next breath condemning him) is being used to smear Trump himself as a white supremacist.
It is grotesque to equate Trump’s pledge to “make America great again”, which was endorsed by the 63 million Americans who voted for him, with the bigotry of white supremacism. The former is driven by people wanting to uphold core American values they deeply cherish and share with each other. The latter is driven by loathing of racial and ethnic groups deemed to be inferior.
In last year’s presidential campaign Hillary Clinton was endorsed by Will Quigg, “grand dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan’s California chapter. He claimed she had a “hidden agenda” and that if elected she would come out for gun ownership and sealing America’s borders. Quigg’s support of Clinton was rightly dismissed as either mischief-making or barking mad. Yet when such people support Trump, this is held to define him.
There are various possible reasons why initially Trump didn’t specifically condemn the far right in Charlottesville. He may resent being bullied into stating what he considers should be obvious: that he thinks such people are vicious extremists. He may believe that both warring sides had unconscionable agendas.
Whatever his reason, his generalised remarks were ill-judged. As US president, he inescapably delineates the contours of what is socially acceptable and what is beyond the pale. He should therefore have specifically denounced white supremacism as having no place in American society. At the same time, he should have specifically condemned the hatemongering ideology of left-wing identity politics.
Such a response was not just morally but politically necessary. For the left’s real target is not the far right but mainstream conservatives who want to uphold American values and culture: the people who brought Trump to power. Defending national identity, however, is denounced by western progressives as white racism.
The result is an unholy alliance between the left and the far right. A white supremacist called Richard Spencer invented the blanket term “alt-right” to associate his ilk with conservatives seeking merely to defend American identity and core values. Through this tactic, Spencer intended to boost the far right and simultaneously smear and thus destroy regular conservatives.
The left has seized upon this smear with unbridled joy, routinely using the “alt-right” term to try to destroy the national identity agenda by bracketing it with white supremacism. The result is a powerful boost for the far right. From deserved obscurity, they suddenly find the left are transmitting their every utterance to the world. The phrase “useful idiots” comes inescapably to mind.
Charlottesville was but the latest front in what has become America’s cultural civil war. It won’t, alas, be the last.