Trump knew what he was doing with this “both sides” shit. If you think it’s irreparably damaged his presidency, I humbly suggest you not judge too quickly. Here’s why: That neo-Nazis and white supremacists exist in America has been generally acknowledged for a long time. News reports about them have been popping up for decades; Edward Norton and Ryan Gosling (to name just two) have played skinheads in movies. But almost everyone could see that Charlottesville was different. Nearly everyone wanted to know what accounted for that difference.
Just underneath the surface of Trump’s press conference statements, was the official explanation: In Charlottesville, unlike KKK and neo-Nazi rallies of years past, there were haters on the left to match the haters on the right; and the city of Charlottesville was not big enough for the two of them. Caught in the crossfire were “fine people”—statue enthusiasts and sadly deluded would-be despoilers of American history, come to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Let’s be clear: To call out the “alt-left” is to blame the left for the violence in Charlottesville, up to and including the killing of Heather Heyer. In defense of white supremacist movements, Trump was shooting blanks. How could he do otherwise? The Klan, et al are still deeply disreputable. As a rhetorical weapon to discredit and divide the left, however, his comments will have an impact.
Because the question still stands: Why did Charlottesville happen? Blaming antifa is a convenient way to curtail conversation about the widespread economic insecurity that is giving a lift to the fascists. Another neat distraction arises when Trump boasts of his job-creating Foxconn deal, without providing reassurance that we won’t be seeing abysmal conditions of the sort that led to a wave of worker suicides in Foxconn’s factories in China. Quite the opposite: The president recently said that badly-off upstate New Yorkers should uproot their lives and move to Wisconsin, so they could get a job at the Foxconn factory when (if) it opens. “Don’t worry about your house,” said the former proprietor of Trump University. Thanks, Prez!
The last thing Trump wants is a left that exposes the absurdity of such proposals. Don’t forget, in the spring of 2016 Bernie Sanders was spoiling for a debate with Trump—an invitation that was first seemingly accepted, then spurned by the Trump campaign. The fake populist thought it best not to court direct comparison with a real populist. I think he was probably right. If the debate had been held (always an unlikely prospect), the election might have gone an entirely different way.
Yes, blaming the “alt-left”—a term, it’s been widely noted, that was adopted during the presidential campaign by centre-leftists to tarnish the socialist-leaning left—for Charlottesville tears at the wounds of 2016, but it scrabbles deeper than that. It inflames the perennial progressive temptation to retreat to a purely symbolic politics. Recoiling from accusations of street violence, we end up aiming our ire at a statue. One’s enjoyment of the video in which righteously juiced-up protesters in Durham pull down a Confederate statue, is somewhat dampened once the figure crumples to the ground and people start raining blows on the thing, as if it were somehow going to get back up. Overkill mars the solemnity of a good symbolic gesture.
To be sure, many on the left are tired by now of the “white working class” economic rationale. After Charlottesville, they’re through making and listening to excuses for white nationalism. As a Jew, I hear what they’re saying. However, we know that fascist groups are using socialism-derived talking points to recruit. (Substitute “Jewish banker” for “capitalist,” and you get the idea.) If our economic case becomes a casualty of our justified disgust, the appeal of white nationalism will only be strengthened.
If it wasn’t clear before Charlottesville that not all elements of the centre-left #Resistance were to be wholly trusted, Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” segment on Saturday Night Live should have made some problems plain. Decide for yourself whether her jokes landed, but her sincere call for viewers to “treat [“free speech’] rallies like a thoughtful movie with two female leads: don’t show up” was political idiocy. That Fey couldn’t resist throwing her Hollywood grievances into the mix makes her a deserving target for criticism. But even on a practical level, her message misfired. Wherever they march, the alt-right must be dwarfed by crowds of peaceful counter-protesters. Anything less furthers the fake notion—on which their entire movement depends—that the far-right commands the secret sentiments of the country. Fortunately, the turnout in Boston on Saturday seems to suggest that Americans are ignoring Fey’s exhortation to stay home and do nothing.
One way to build on the current anti-fascist momentum would be to dislodge from the movement the complacent millionaire’s mentality held by Fey and other libs in high places, well-intentioned though they might be. If we must settle for a resistance rather than a revolution, let’s start with a resistance to internalised authority.