In the past year, we have often treated the crisis in American public life as an appalling yet darkly entertaining reality show — fittingly, with a former reality-show host presiding. That reality has become much too real.
Over the weekend, an alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted in violent clashes between the participants — who included overt neo-Nazis — and counterprotesters, some of them from militant leftist groups. A man plowed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, police said. Alt-right rally-goer James Alex Fields Jr. was charged with murder and other crimes. Two state troopers also died in a helicopter crash.
To see people in an American community carrying Nazi flags and giving the Hitler salute is unnerving enough — much more so when their presence ends in deadly violence. But in this case, the unease was compounded by the initial tepid response from the president of the United States. Donald Trump’s comment on Saturday condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Only yesterday, after a vehement bipartisan backlash, did Trump make a more specific statement denouncing neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Violence did happen on both sides in Charlottesville, with conflicting accounts as to who started it; many of the counterprotesters belonged to far-left “antifa” groups with their own radical agenda and with a history of mayhem (such as the riots in Berkeley, California, last spring to shut down far-right speakers on the University of California campus). But Trump’s both-sidism was egregiously ill-suited to this occasion, when the only death was at the hands of the alt-right. And while the far left has many awful ideas of its own, only the alt-right was in Charlottesville to preach its hateful ideology. This was hardly the time to equate the two.
Trump’s low-key reaction — quite a contrast to his vitriolic attacks on assorted foes on Twitter — also has, once again, brought to the fore his political ties to the alt-right. Chief White House strategist and close Trump aide Steven Bannon gave the white nationalist movement a platform on the Breitbart News website when he headed it. The resurgence of white supremacist extremism in America would be alarming under any circumstances. It is deeply toxic when the extremists believe they have allies in the White House.
The crisis is compounded by toxic attitudes on the left, where some commentators used the tragedy to push their own agendas. MSNBC producer and former NBC News reporter Mary Emily O’Hara tweeted a graphic intended to explain that swastikas, the Ku Klux Klan, racial slurs and hate crimes were merely the tip of an iceberg that includes socially acceptable white supremacy, including “believing we are ‘post-racial,’ ” “cultural appropriation,” “celebration of Columbus Day” and “being a self-appointed white ally.”
Other progressives suggested that the racist demonstrators were part of “the same sickness” as James Damore, the Google employee fired last week for writing a memo arguing that innate differences between the sexes at least partly account for the low numbers of women in tech jobs at the company. Still others asserted that whites are collectively to blame for the violence in Charlottesville.
It’s too simplistic to argue, as some conservatives have, that such white male-bashing caused the rise of the alt-right. But it is certainly a useful recruiting tool for far-right extremists.
Far left and far right do not share equal blame for Charlottesville. But both are part of a vicious cycle of political dysfunction — a cycle that, right now, we lack the political leadership to overcome.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.