Last weekend, a man boarded a bus in Seattle brandishing a Nazi armband. A Twitter user photographed him and sent out the photo with the hashtag “AntiFascistAlert.” Shortly after, somebody found the man and knocked him out with a punch, the video of which went viral.
It was not the first time a video of a physical attack on a white supremacist thrilled progressives. Self-styled “anti-fascist” demonstrators have inserted themselves into a number of political dramas over the past year, often winning plaudits far beyond their narrow movement. When one demonstrator punched Richard Spencer, the far-right activist, on Inauguration Day, it provoked a spirited intramural debate within the left about the morality of unprovoked physical attacks on … Nazis? Fascists? White supremacists? Racists? Who, exactly, can be assaulted on the basis of political viewpoint?
It may seem pedantic, in the face of a threat as radical as the Trump presidency, to quibble over terminological distinctions between different varieties of odious people. But the language we use organizes our political thinking. And one of the terrible things Trump has done to this country has been to warp the terms and categories — and, hence, the character — of the political opposition through the exertion of sheer terror. Seemingly harmless changes have crept into our political lexicon, which may have dangerous consequences.
Consider the question of whether it is accurate to describe Trump as a “white supremacist.” Ta-Nehisi Coates adopted this description in a sharp and deservedly praised Atlantic essay. Sports talk-show host Jemele Hill repeated the term. (“Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.”) The Trump administration (displaying its characteristic lack of respect either for freedom of speech or intellectual consistency) demanded her firing. This caused numerous commenters on the left to defend not only Hill’s right to say it — a very sound position — but the substance of what she said. Hill “has a measure of truth on her side,” writes the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan. New York Times columnist Charles Blow concurs.
Until very recently, “white supremacist” had a fixed meaning, and it described something different than the political style represented by Donald Trump. Before the 1960s, many American politicians openly advocated white supremacy. After that, political appeals to racism had to use some level of symbolic remove. Conservative politicians have employed crime, welfare, or affirmative action as triggers. Conservative politicians often denied or downplayed the persistence of racism in American society. Racism has been absolutely central to the political appeal of conservative politics since the 1960s, and many politicians have harbored private racist beliefs, but racism has worked almost exclusively as subtext, not text.
The term “white supremacist” has described a different group of people than standard Republicanism. It meant a member of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, or some other similar organization that argued explicitly for white power. News articles linking mainstream politicians to white supremacists might mention some secret link between the two — such as the revelation that Representative Steve Scalise had given a speech to a white-supremacist organization — but they were understood to be different movements. Every mention of white supremacists that appeared in the New York Times in the 12 months before Trump’s candidacy referred either to American politicians before the civil-rights era, or to explicit advocates of white power, such as those Scalise was discovered to have met with (but not Scalise himself).
The emergence of the alt-right has created a bridge between conservatism and white supremacy. The term “alt-right” itself has become fuzzy, since actual white supremacists coopted it almost immediately, but it originally referred to a movement occupying the ideological space between Nazism and standard conservatism. The alt-right was more racist than traditional conservatism, but it still did not identify as white supremacist. In one interview, Steve Bannon said, “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist.” In another, he called white supremacists “a bunch of clowns.”
This is not to absolve or defend Bannon, who is playing a repugnant game, drawing open white supremacists into his coalition and using their energy without going so far as to endorse their worldview completely. The intermingling of what turned out to be a winning major party campaign with white supremacy is a development of enormous historical significance. We should be deeply alarmed about the fact that the president tweets memes created by Nazis, or renounces their support in tepid ways that leave them convinced he privately supports them. That is not, however, the same thing as a president who is an actual white supremacist — at least not as the term has been used.
All of a sudden, the term is being attached to Trump. The president’s “ideology is white supremacy,” writes Coates. Coates places Trump in a different category than previous presidents when it comes to his treatment of race. But his examples largely amount to behavior with a historical precedent. Like Nixon, Trump has made private expressions of bigotry against African-Americans and Jews. Like many Republican politicians, he has used immigration and crime as wedge issues to foment white hysteria. Coates persuasively argues that Trump has made race more central to his persona than other post-civil-rights politicians, but that is not the same as identifying him as a white supremacist.
Much of the argument for calling Trump a white supremacist rests on collapsing the distinction between accepting a group’s support and sharing all its beliefs. “In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own,” writes Coates. “If you are not completely opposed to white supremacy, you are quietly supporting it,” argues Blow.
This kind of sloppy conflation of adjacent ideological categories is more typically found on the right. It is routine for conservatives to depict an Arab or Muslim organization as a “terrorist group” because it harbors some loose or overlapping connection with supporters of Hezbollah or some other radical group. Decades ago, white supremacists smeared the civil rights movement as communist because some civil-rights leaders worked with communists.
White supremacists have thrilled to Trump because he has drawn upon their themes and, after decades in which both parties excluded them completely, given them an opening into major-party politics. That offense is sufficiently serious without escalating the indictment.
The language we use to describe Trump helps us organize our response to him. The election of a David Duke as president would necessitate a different kind of response than the election of a person who plays footsie with David Duke. And the election of a traditional Republican whom David Duke does not like at all, such as George W. Bush, would necessitate a different kind of response than either of those events, even though all three are, from the left’s perspective, very bad things. To flatten the language we use to describe different kinds of right-wing politics is to bludgeon our capacity to make vital distinctions.
This danger may sound hypothetical, but it is already playing out before us. Antifa and other far-left factions have increased their following by exploiting this precise confusion. Collapsing the political space between Trump and the white-supremacist goons who thrill to him is a rhetorical maneuver with important ramifications. “The situation in America has reached a critical tipping point,” one antifa member told Mother Jones, “and we need to fight back with whatever tactics are effective at sending these guys back into the caves they crawled out of.”
The method here is to panic liberals into abandoning liberalism. In normal times, liberals accept the right of even the most heinous opponents to engage in peaceful political expression, because giving either the government or violent street fighters the right to silence opponents of the left is a power that could just as easily be turned against the left itself. But if Trump is not merely a potential authoritarian but an actual one, and the appearance of a handful of Nazis (a demonstration in Charlottesville drawing upon supporters across the country mustered only a few hundred) is the onset of Weimar Germany, then liberalism seems like an insufficient response.
The equation of Trump with Hitler is a way of using history that treats American democracy as a failed experiment. All its procedural niceties, like freedom of speech even for those with the most heinous beliefs, are suddenly unaffordable luxuries. “An anti-fascist outlook has no tolerance for ‘intolerance,’” writes Mark Bray in his sympathetic new history of antifa. “It will not ‘agree to disagree.’” Bray’s analysis uses the rise of Hitler as the main historical analogue for understanding the contemporary United States. “Bray addresses nearly every argument by invoking the fact that Hitler and other far-right insurgents began with small followings, but then some of these groups did what had been previously considered unthinkable — assuming political power and murdering millions,” observers Anthony Fisher, in a review.
Having preordained the guardrails of democracy to give way to the new Hitler, and having consigned liberalism to the dustbin of history, its critics on the left proceed to boil the political question down to a simple binary. As an article in Jacobin chastising liberal critics of antifa puts it:
There is a side that asserts our common humanity and fights fascism, racism, and hate. It was represented in Charlottesville by the leftist groups who took to the streets to confront the far right. The other side is the one that took innocent lives on those same streets. The stakes are high. We have to choose.
You are either with the people beating up the racist-fascists, or you are with the racist-fascists themselves. To oppose one is to support the other. See how quickly and easily the category of fascists and racists can grow? The panic they are currently fomenting over Trump or a tiny number of Third Reich cosplayers can eventually be turned against anybody who questions their tactics. While only a minuscule number of progressive Americans subscribe to such radical views, a much larger number has inadvertently ceded the terms of the debate to those who do.
The implications of the discourse of panic are more extreme than many of us realize. Friday, students protested the decision by Howard University to schedule a speech by James Comey, and then attempted to drown out his remarks, on the grounds that “white supremacy is not a debate.” An implicit premise of their position is that the question of whether someone — say, James Comey — is a white supremacist is also not subject to debate.
A militant response against white supremacists might appear like an extreme response to extreme circumstances, but it has no clear limiting principle. Put together the expanding definition of white supremacy with the belief that white supremacists have no political rights. How exactly is democracy supposed to work?
Update: Vann Newkirk II, replying in the Atlantic, makes the case that critical race theorists (and some others) use the term “white supremacist” differently than the mainstream news sources, like the New York Times, that I rely upon. He’s absolutely correct about that. As Newkirk argues, it is a “provocation” designed to highlight the continued centrality of racism in American society even after the 1960s collapse of the de jure Apartheid system.
I don’t see that use of the term as necessarily wrong or inaccurate per se. It’s certainly correct that a wide array of economic and social forces maintain radically unequal status for white and black Americans. The problem, rather, arises in the context I am describing, when we are differentiating strands of right-wing politics. If you are attempting to describe the most extreme faction of the right, the faction which identifies with the Ku Klux Klan or Nazis, you need a term. Mainstream newspapers use “white supremacists,” a term they also apply to segregationist politicians before the civil rights era.
That is also the terminology that Ta-Nehisi Coates employed in his essay, which is the foundational text of this debate. Coates describes “clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville,” describes David Duke as a “a white supremacist who once fronted a terrorist organization,” and describes Jim Crow Southern Democrats as “the white-supremacist ‘solid South.’” Coates also applies the term to Trump, but argues that he acquires it through association with them – “In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own.” The definition he uses retains its character throughout his essay.
The exact meaning of the term does not seem to be especially central to Coates’ essay. But it does have importance to other uses of political rhetoric that exist mostly outside that essay. The increasingly-popular idea that white supremacists do not deserve free speech or protection from violent attack – some students recently shouted down a speech by the American Civil Liberties Union on the ground that “liberalism is white supremacy” – makes a consistent understanding of the term especially important.
Newkirk makes a good case for indicting structural racism in American society, a problem that reaches far beyond the tiny minority of open Nazis and Klansmen. But he doesn’t propose a solution to the problem of rhetorical distinction other than to suggest the distinction is imaginary. “To counter Chait,” he writes, “a more expansive view of white supremacy in media’s contemplation of politics may seem to ‘flatten’ political discourse, perhaps the difficulty here is facing the possibility that things might actually be flat.” If that means we have only one term to describe the racial politics spanning the American Civil Liberties Union, James Comey, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and David Duke, then I maintain that, yes, we have a language that is too flat.