In his unhinged news conference on Tuesday, Trump equated what he called the “alt-Left” (which is not a thing) with the alt-Right. He characterized the latter as good people who were just protesting removing a statue of the traitor Robert E. Lee and wondered if statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (not notably traitors to the United States of America) would be removed next.
At one point he asked who the alt-Right are.
The answer is only knowable by how they behave. The racist, violent throng in Charlottesville revealed themselves by their tactics to be fascists.
Trump as usual sidestepped all the really important issues. Charlottesville was not about ideas or statues. It was an attempt to demonstrate the political efficacy of acting unconstitutionally, as a menacing mass able to intimidate people. Fascism doesn’t have many ideas, and isn’t the same in each country. Mussolini, Franco and Hitler were all very different in policy and style, and all of them are different from Trump. That’s one reason why the easy resort to Hitler analogies is usually not very illuminating (though you have a sinking feeling that we may need to entertain more such analogies now).
People don’t come to mere rallies with Klan torches and bats and shields and brickbats and even guns. The Unite the Right mob invasion of Charlottesville was not a political protest. It was intended as a Kristallnacht, as the breaking of the windows of the shops of the liberal Jews and Blacks who the ‘Alt-Right’ believes runs the small college town of Charlottesville.
The organizers of this mob action got enormous bang for their buck. A few hundred people, many of them armed and dangerous, were able to model for the whole country how it is possible to sidestep democratic institutions and go straight for the public jugular, with visceral hatred and identity politics and whipping up fear.
The ISIL-style vehicular terrorism that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others, sending bodies flying, was only one instance of wanton violence perpetrated by the Alt-Right. (And by the way, Trump’s impassioned defense of the creeps is still not matched by any praise for Heather.)
A white gang also beat DeAndre Harris to within an inch of his life.
The fascists were emboldened to perform this demonstration project by the knowledge that the president is a right wing billionaire who is generally supportive of their goals. Fascists are mostly lower middle class but they want to get rich and join the billionaires, and so are willing to act as the shock troops of the anti-social section of the rich (i.e. Trump and the Kochs, not Warren Buffett). In return, they get to categorize themselves as in the same faction as Donald Trump, as though suddenly thereby their toilet seats will turn into gold, as well. They get to be better by simple mantras of racial exclusivism, than Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Muslims. They get to rise to the top of the heap, not because of hard work or special insights or striving for higher education, but just by being free to throw around racial slurs and stick their chests out and brandishing assault rifles they have courtesy the pro-Right NRA Lobby.
Here is how Alan Zimmerman described the situation at his synagogue in Charlottesville on Saturday morning:
“On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services. (Even the police department’s limited promise of an observer near our building was not kept — and note, we did not ask for protection of our property, only our people as they worshipped).
Forty congregants were inside. Here’s what I witnessed during that time.
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.
Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”
Cornell West also reported of the white nationalist thugs,
“But what happened was, they held us hostage in the church. We could not leave after the service, because the torch march threatening the people who were there…”
… You had a number of the courageous students, of all colors, at the University of Virginia who were protesting against the neofascists themselves. The neofascists had their own ammunition. And this is very important to keep in mind, because the police, for the most part, pulled back. The next day, for example, those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists who approached, over 300, 350 antifascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing “This Little light of Mine,” you know what I mean? So that the—
AMY GOODMAN: “Antifa” meaning antifascist.
CORNEL WEST: The antifascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually.
If these individuals really were there to protest the removal of a statue in a democratic way, they had other choices. They could have joined in local politics, gone to city council meetings, walked neighborhoods, tried to elect a different city council. But how likely would they have been, you ask, to succeed in a liberal college town? One of the more essential elements in democratic practice is that the losers in a political contest accept defeat and go home. Where that doesn’t happen, as in Libya in 2014 and after, you get civil war. Democracy isn’t a guarantee of your views winning and being implemented. It is a guarantee that you get to make a reasoned, public appeal for them before people vote on them.
Trump, and Faux News’s phony equivalence of the fascist mobsters with the counter-protesters is easily refuted. How many people did the counter-protesters put in the hospital? What policy did they attempt to force illegitimately on the democratically elected leaders? How are they, like Trump and his corporate backers, trying to poison our water, spew toxic carbon dioxide into the air and take away people’s health insurance, for the sake of corporate profits?
Shouting Sieg Heil at a synagogue is not democratic process, it is thuggery. And ultimately, all fascism is is commonplace mass thuggery.
The novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote in Billy Bathgate that mobsters view death as a form of garbage. When a gangster loses his temper and kicks a man to death, he has to call cleaners to take out the trash. The criminality of fascism is likewise just a way of making a healthy society into sewage, with hobnail boots and brandishing of weapons and marching and torches and angry racial slurs. It is as banal as turds in a toilet. It builds nothing, makes nothing, invents nothing. It just swallows up everything that is good and turns it into shit.
That, Mr. President, is what your alt-Right is. And if it is what you identify with, then so are you.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on August 16, 2017, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole. It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.