It’s tempting to point and laugh at the Unite the Right rally held Sunday in Washington. The couple dozen cretinous crusaders were vastly outnumbered by the cops assigned to protect them, and by the crowds who turned out to protest their vile message or just to gawk. This wasn’t a resurgent white nationalism, a dangerously seductive evil; it was the public self-humiliation of a movement that ought to have died years ago and evidently almost has.
I’m not laughing, though, because nothing’s funny when “white supremacy” is the punchline. And yet the episode in Washington is at least a reason to smile. The organizers apparently hoped that the gathering was going to be a reenactment of last year’s hate rally in Charlottesville, only bigger and more powerful. Instead, as my colleague Petula Dvorak wrote, “even the Popsicle and water vendors seemed to outnumber the Unite the Right marchers.”
One worry is that the rally was an anomaly, that there are a lot of white supremacists looking to hobnob with each other but for some reason couldn’t make it to the rally. Certainly there were more in Charlottesville. But with numbers this tiny, “more” is not a difficult hurdle to clear; the infamous torchlight march last year with Nazi nostalgists chanting “Jews will not replace us” reportedly numbered somewhere between “dozens” of people and “about 250.”
There is a curious historical consistency to those estimates. In 2005, David Duke held a “European American conference” in New Orleans, which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, attracted “over 300 white supremacists.” Which can also be translated as “fewer than 400.”
The meager numbers are a far cry from the days when the Ku Klux Klan could attract 200,000 people to a rally in Kokomo, Ind., in 1923. True, it’s likely that each of those Charlottesville torchbearers represented others who wanted to march but didn’t. Yet even a sizable multiplier still suggests an insignificant portion of the population. Imagine 100 like-minded people for every attendee; imagine 200; imagine 1,000. You’re still looking at less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. population.
That’s not to say racism has ended and it’s time to rejoice; we still have a president who baldly embraces white identity politics, pursuing pointlessly cruel immigration policies and dividing the electorate along fissures that most Americans long to see gone. And many would argue that the modern face of white supremacy is different; it’s coded language about immigration and crime, unequal policing, residential segregation and all the other forms of subtle discrimination and structural racism that keep racial minorities disadvantaged. The critics are right that these forms of oppression still exist and that realizing the promise of “all men are created equal” requires us to do more to dismantle them.
But whether or not we agree that the phrase “white supremacy” should be redefined to include those subtler kinds of discrimination, we can presumably agree that the shamelessly ethno-nationalist beliefs of people such as Richard Spencer are especially pernicious. And that in living memory, such beliefs were once unapologetically endorsed by substantial majorities throughout much of the country, translating into openly racist governance. Jim Crow, sanction for public lynching, national-origin immigration quotas designed to keep the population of the United States overwhelmingly white — we still have many racial problems, but thank God, we don’t have those.
The unexpected (but still small) size of the Charlottesville march, and its eruption into violence, made it seem plausible that there might be a growing constituency for returning to those bad old days, something like the resurrection of the Klan in the 1920s. Instead, only a handful of white supremacists turned up in Washington, while thousands of Americans came out to decry their hateful ideology.
Naturally, the movement should be watched closely for any sign that its appeal is broadening beyond a few twisted souls. And we should always be dismayed to find that so much as a single American could want to revive the most horrifying aspect of the nation’s past. But I think the pathetic demonstration in Washington calls for a certain amount of relief: America isn’t going along.