The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sorry conservatives. There’s no equivalence between the extreme right and the extreme left.

(Alan Goffinski/Associated Press)

The president of the United States, the Republican Party and the conservative movement are all facing a moral crisis brought on by the events in Charlottesville, which were just the most vivid and tragic expression of a broader trend that has emerged in the past two years and especially since Donald Trump took office. For some, the answer has been simple: condemn the rise of the extreme racist right and any attempt to justify it.

But others have responded by trying to explain it away and shift blame toward — you guessed it — liberals.

There are two interrelated strains to this argument, both equally wrong. The first says that right-wing extremism exists only because of “political correctness” and “identity politics” on the left. The second says that as regrettable as the presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis might be, they are merely the opposite side of the coin to violent extremists on the left, two equivalent symptoms of a deeper malady of the American spirit. In both cases, the point is to deflect conservatives’ own share of responsibility for the hatred that seems to be spreading.

On Aug. 15, 2017, President Trump asked reporters to define the "alt-right," then said "alt-left" members were also to blame for violence in Charlotteville, Va. (Video: The Washington Post)

So the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes that identity politics is the root problem, since “A politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways on the right and left.” Conservative writer Rod Dreher is even less ambiguous, characterizing American Nazism and white supremacy as a beast brought forth by liberal political correctness. “When the Left indulges in rhetoric that demonizes whites — especially white males — it summons the demons of white nationalism,” he writes. “When the Left obsesses over ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities, but ignores the plight of poor and working-class whites, it summons the demons of white nationalism.”

The Federalist, meanwhile, argues that the real white supremacists can be found at Planned Parenthood, while Michelle Malkin insists that President Trump was absolutely right to allocate blame for Charlottesville equally to both sides, since “of the four people arrested after the violent outbreak in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend, two were identified with the white nationalist movement and the other two were left-wing ‘antifa’ counterprotesters.” So there.

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But the idea that these hatemongers are here only because of “identity politics” dissolves under the barest examination. First of all, the ideology of white supremacy in America is as old as the country itself. And conservatives have been complaining about left identity politics for a couple of decades now, elevating every minor campus controversy into a national issue as though an argument in the Oberlin College student center demands the urgent attention of every Fox News viewer throughout the land. Yet somehow, the recent upsurge in the visibility and brazenness of white nationalists coincided with the candidacy and then presidency of Trump. What a coincidence!

The truth is that politics is, and always has been, about identity. Conservatives like to pretend that it’s only when women or racial minorities make arguments related to their particular concerns that sinister “identity politics” is at work, but nobody plays identity politics with more fervor and vigor than some conservatives do. When Republicans in the South run ads featuring Nancy Pelosi and shots of San Francisco, are they talking about issues? When they say their opponents don’t share “[insert our state here] values,” is that a policy argument? Was the Willie Horton ad about crime policy?

Republicans have been running campaigns based on identity politics, especially white-identity politics, for decades; Trump just made it more explicit. He built his campaign in large part on the notion that whites in today’s America, and white Christians in particular, are victims — victims of liberals forbidding them from saying “Merry Christmas,” victims of Mexico and China taking their jobs, victims of immigrants transforming their communities, victims of Muslims coming to kill them, victims of elitists in New York and Hollywood creating a culture that excludes them. Trump promised to wind back the clock to a time when white men occupied an unquestioned place on top of the social hierarchy, and it was that promise that thrilled so many of his supporters.

False equivalence

Now let’s consider the idea that there is an equivalence in America today between the white nationalist/white supremacist/neo-Nazi right and what conservatives increasingly refer to as the “violent left.” This is the claim Trump made specifically about Charlottesville, but it finds increasing purchase on the right. It has a surface appeal, when you see a guy in a hoodie with a bandana over his face smashing a Starbucks window. That’s violent, after all, right? Isn’t all violence bad?

But the differences couldn’t be more profound. Yes, there are a small number of antifa counterprotesters who show up to scuffle with white supremacists when the latter mount a protest (if you’re unfamiliar, historian Mark Bray explains what antifa is). And yes, there have been other incidents, such as at Trump’s inaugural, in which antifa activists committed acts of vandalism. But the far right is 1) large; 2) highly organized; and most importantly, 3) directly tied to the president of the United States and the Republican Party.

Antifa is none of those things. It is tiny, not organized on a broad scale, and has precisely zero ties to any prominent Democrat. The president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party is celebrated and endorsed by the white supremacist right (“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” tweeted David Duke Tuesday); the extreme left views Democrats as an enemy. Trump directly echoes and repeats the arguments and claims of the extreme right, as we saw him do on Tuesday; no elected Democrat shares the radical anti-capitalist ideas of the extreme left. Trump hired Stephen K. Bannon, who ran the white nationalist website Breitbart, which Bannon himself described as “the platform for the alt-right,” to run his campaign and then to be senior adviser in his White House.

It’s hard to know for certain how many converts the white nationalist movement has gained in the past year or two. But what we know for certain is that since Trump seized control of the Republican Party, all manner of far-right racial activists — white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis — have been emboldened to be more public and vocal about their rancid beliefs. Trump validated them and encouraged them as a candidate, and continues to do so as president.

No conservative can claim that he or she didn’t realize that’s what Trump was doing when they endorsed him, advocated for him and supported him. They accepted that Trump was an ignorant fool and a misogynistic creep and deeply corrupt — and they also accepted that he was welcoming the racist right with open arms. It’s nice that so many of them have come out and said they’re opposed to murderous Nazi terrorism. But however they might try to explain away their own complicity, they can’t blame it on liberals.