The Unite the Right white nationalist rally held in Washington Sunday on the anniversary of last year’s fateful events in Charlottesville, Virginia, was an almost comical failure. Some 30 people showed up, along with large crowds of counter-protesters. Supporters of racial equality can see this as a good sign; yet many are worried that white nationalist ideology in less overtly extremist forms is making inroads into mainstream discourse on the right. Meanwhile, many conservatives say it’s the left that promotes racial division and extremism.
How much cause is there for optimism one year after Charlottesville?
While white supremacists certainly have failed if their goal was to convey strength in numbers, it’s too early to dismiss the alt-right as a phantom menace. To some extent, the very low turnout was reportedly due to logistical issues as well as infighting among alt-right groups. Few Americans sympathize with self-identified white nationalists — in polls, fewer than 5 percent say they mostly agree with their goals — but even a small radicalized population can fuel dangerous extremism if the circumstances are right.
Those concerned about a camouflaged white nationalism going mainstream are not just being paranoid. Last week, Fox News host and strong Donald Trump supporter Laura Ingraham came under fire for a statement that many see as an expression of such ideology. In parts of the country, Ingraham lamented, “it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.” She also noted that much of this unwelcome change “is related to both illegal and, in some cases, legal immigration.”
After being widely condemned — but praised by the likes of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke — Ingraham disavowed white nationalists and asserted that she was not talking about race but about “a shared sense of keeping America safe” and about “families who have suffered from the tragic results of illegal immigration.” But talk of “massive demographic changes” does sound like a reference to broad shifts in the country’s racial and ethnic makeup.
Ingraham is echoing a rhetorical strain that has, indeed, become a troubling current on the right. (Her Fox News colleague Tucker Carlson regularly peddles demographic fearmongering.) But is she correct when she says that “most of us” don’t like the recent decades’ changes in the American population? Polls say otherwise.
In a Pew Research Center survey in June, nearly 60 percent of Americans agreed that “having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities in the United States” makes the country “a better place to live,” while less than 10 percent said it made the country worse. Even among self-identified conservatives, just 17 percent thought growing diversity makes America worse. But that minority is vocal and aggressive enough to be influential.
The left has its own problems. Many champions of diversity also promote racial and cultural balkanization, such as taboos on white artists and writers using material from other cultures — the sort of thing that pushes more people, especially conservatives, into the anti-diversity camp. The past year also has seen the rise of “anti-fascist” activists who insist they have the right to use harassment and even violence to silence anyone they consider a “fascist” (and some of whom assaulted journalists during the Washington counter-protest).
The white supremacist rally in Washington may have been a bust. But the danger of mutual radicalization on the right and the left is disturbingly real.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.