I’m worried that the Charlottesville riots are making the left psychologically unhinged in the same way that they have been unhinged by the election of Donald Trump, only more so.
The problem with their reaction to Donald Trump is that he seems to so totally vindicate all of their political prejudices that he justifies an even more vicious vilification of anyone who opposes their agenda. They think everyone who supports free market capitalism is a rich jerk who looks down on poor people? Check. They think anyone who complains about Political Correctness just wants to be a sexist boor? Check. They think anyone who talks hawkishly about Islamic terrorism must be driven by a neurotic need to prove his masculinity? Check. They think anyone who doesn’t sign up for the latest iteration of the “diversity” agenda must harbor some kind of implicit sympathy for white nationalists? Yeah, well, check.
These things are not true of the overwhelming majority of people who hold those views. As applied to Donald Trump, they are a bit exaggerated—but they’re close enough to be plausible. So the left is seduced by the temptation to take this as final proof that everyone who opposes them is just as irredeemably awful as they always suspected. And if that’s true, then there’s no point in making any effort to reach out to the rest of the country, to find out what people really think, to attempt to persuade them, or, God forbid, to learn anything from what they have to say.
The events in Charlottesville have accomplished the same thing, with less justification and one hundred times the intensity. One of the left’s greatest weaknesses has always been their tendency to brand anyone who disagrees with them on public policy as a secret racist and possibly a Nazi.
To anyone on the left who scoffs at this, I’ll furnish a few examples in a moment. I promise you that no one on the right is scoffing at it. This kind of ignorant vilification has been a daily reality for our entire adult lives.
And now actual, real-life Nazis have materialized on the scene, and while the Ku Klux Klan was getting too geriatric to look all that scary, these guys are young and have a stronger sense of the theatrical, what with the matching outfits and chants and torches and all. So the left can now claim among its enemies real, live, literally murderous Nazis, an enemy that is profoundly and indisputably evil.
This as a sobering new development that ought to put ordinary politics into perspective. Instead, many have been tempted to make it into another tool of ordinary politics—the ultimate tool. Charlottesville has made them feel even more emboldened in smearing everyone who disagrees with them as a Nazi or a white nationalist.
I’ve been watching this unfold over the last week on Twitter. To be sure, Twitter is not necessarily representative of the real world, but it definitely serves as incubator for angry mobs and has an outsized influence on the national political media, through whom these trends filter down to the rank and file of the left.
What I’ve learned from Twitter in the last week is that, not only is the Trump White House chock full of white nationalists—but that also extends to Jeff Sessions, along with the entire Republican Party.
When Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio denounce Nazis, that doesn’t mean they’re not Nazis, it just means they’re posturing. Paul Ryan “owns” Nazism just by being a Republican, I guess. Oh, and unless he’s actually impeaching Trump, he’s a Brownshirt.
People who complain about calling everybody Nazis are Nazis. Anyone who points out that there were also violent, anti-democracy anarcho-Communist “antifa” demonstrators in Charlottesville is simply making excuses for Nazis—even if they work for the New York Times.
This isn’t even guilt by association. It’s guilt by free association, and it seems almost calculated to prevent the overwhelming number of people who oppose fascism and white nationalism from making common cause with one another. There are a lot of people who are taking an issue that somewhere around 99% of Americans ought to be able to agree on—”Nazis are bad”—and trying to make it into a repellently partisan issue. It is as if they need us to be Nazis. If every one of them is Simon Wiesenthal, they’d better find an awful lot of Eichmanns. They need everyone who is not a card-carrying supporter of their political movement to be a total evil which justifies unlimited reprisal: from getting people fired from their jobs to beating them with sticks in the streets.
What is most ominous is that the left is using Charlottesville to talk themselves into the notion that Nazis and white nationalists have no free speech rights and are fair game for violence. They talk about “punching Nazis,” but that’s just a mild-sounding euphemism as they work their way toward justifying political murder.
Don’t believe me? Look at this video, and ask yourself where this is heading.
To be sure, the fellow at the center of this video is contemptible—though I’m of the old-fashioned school which holds that civil liberties exist precisely to protect those whose views are repugnant to the majority. But what struck me is the way the people around him have formed into a howling mob, closed to reason, principles, or restraint. Also notice that the people attacking him are not just young people caught up in the frenzy of the moment. They’re distinctly middle-aged—notice the man with the grey goatee—and given that this is a university town, they’re probably well-educated. They look like the kind of people I might rub shoulders with in the aisles of the local Whole Foods. Which is to say that they are old enough to exercise some self-restraint—but they’re not interested in doing so. They have taken the evil of their enemies as a license to forego all the rules of civilized society.
Like I said, the victim here is hardly sympathetic. He is not only a white nationalist but was the organizer of the so-called Unite the Right rally on Saturday, so I suppose you could excuse the angry response by holding him indirectly responsible for Heather Heyer’s death. But what I wonder is: was the howling mob even thinking any of that through?
Combine this with the left’s glee at calling anyone a Nazi, at the slightest provocation. If you stood accused of that and were confronted with a mob like this, do you think they would listen to you as you patiently explain that you only oppose removing Confederate monuments out of a desire to preserve history? And if free speech rights don’t apply to “fascists”—or to those branded as such—would you even be allowed to make the case that you aren’t one? When the online mobs have set out to get people fired for attending the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, they certainly didn’t wait to find out if they might be targeting the wrong people.
Believe me, the arguments about how Nazis don’t have free speech rights and how it’s OK to punch them sound much more ominous if anyone has ever called you a Nazi just because he doesn’t like your stand on single-payer health care.
The point is that no argument should be settled by a howling mob or by punching people. We should maintain a deep suspicion of mobs as such, not matter what their cause.
All of this is feeling like a live-action, digitalized version of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” parable in which even the whispered prospect of an alien invasion causes the neighbors on a suburban street to turn against one another, forming frenzied mobs based on the slightest rumor. You should watch it.
At the time, this was supposed to be a warning against Cold War paranoia, but the message is universal and can be applied to other instances of moral panic. Notice one thing about this episode. (Spoiler alert.) The point is not that the monsters aren’t real. The aliens really are planning their invasion, just as there really were Communists, and yes, today, there really are Nazis and they really did come, not to Maple Street, but to Charlottesville’s Main Street. But the point of the episode is that they didn’t even have to attack because they could manipulate us into attacking each other. The monsters didn’t have to come because, in our crazed fear of them, we became the monsters.
We should ask ourselves if we are becoming the monsters today. Those on the left should pause to ask whether they are whipping themselves up into a frenzy against imagined enemies and losing sight of the real ones.
The white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville last weekend are an ominous development, but at least I know that they are a small and widely despised minority. What I find somewhat more ominous is the way the media is embracing violent “anti-fascist” demonstrators, lionizing them as heroes and whitewashing their deeply illiberal ideology. Yet this illiberal ideology is getting sympathy and support from the very heights of the culture, who have declared it impermissible even to acknowledge the existence of a violent, illiberal left. Doing so makes you—you guessed it—a Nazi.
No, our president isn’t helping any, and that is a massive, disqualifying failure on his part. But Americans shouldn’t wait for some political authority in Washington, DC, to set a proper example—particularly not a politician from whom we had no reason to expect any better. If he is inadequate to this moment, that just means the rest of us have to make sure we are.
The monsters are due, again, on Main Street. Please try to make sure you’re not one of them.
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