Politics and Prose in Northwest Washington, where white nationalists disrupted a reading on April 27. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Columnist

A small group of white nationalists marched into a sacred place in Washington over the weekend.

There were no guns or burning torches. But it was still frightening.

An author at one of D.C.’s most beloved bookstores had just begun his talk Saturday when the group came into Politics and Prose — a temple of words and pages, a church of discussion and debate.

At a time when hatred is fueling attacks against synagogues, churches and mosques, the white nationalists stormed past the signed copy of “How We Fight White Supremacy” and past “The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan and the Mainstreaming of Resentment.”

There’s plenty of provocative literature at this bookstore — in any bookstore across the country, really.

But the protesters targeted this book, “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland” and its author, Jonathan Metzl. And their choice shows exactly how little nuance and thought exists in this “movement,” a cauldron of discontent that has led to a spike in hate crimes since Donald Trump became president.

“The irony of this whole situation is the talk I was giving at Politics and Prose actually agreed with some of the points that they are making,” said Metzl, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University.

“I agree that whiteness is under attack,” he said. “But the driver of that despair isn’t immigrants, like the protesters are saying.”

Illness, addiction and gun violence are among white America’s top killers. Yet Metzl’s research shows that many working-class whites vote against the Affordable Care Act, including the expansion of Medicaid that could help their families and communities, as well as any sensible restrictions on gun purchases.

But rather than debate Metzl’s research, rather than ask him questions about his ideas, the Saturday visitors decided to stand at attention in a phalanx between the author and the audience and bullhorn their message.

“You would have the white working class trade their homeland for handouts,” their apparent leader barked through his megaphone as a videographer filmed.

“But we, as nationalists and identitarians, can offer the workers of this country a homeland, their birthright, in addition to health care, good jobs and so forth,” he continued, as seen on a video of the event.

No further plans on how to do this, though. Instead, they began chanting “This land is our land,” pumping their fists in the air and echoing the words of super-leftie Woodie Guthrie and leaving out the “This land is your land” part.

“This was threatening, absolutely,” said Helen Marie Streich, 81, who was among the crowd that flooded Politics and Prose on Sunday. The whole place was buzzing. And Metzl’s book was so on fire that it sold out.

Streich and Phoebe Felk, 82, a retired CIA analyst and a regular at Politics and Prose since it opened in 1984, said they were especially shocked at the timing.

This happened in their neighborhood on the same day that a bigot with a violent manifesto burst into Chabad of Poway in California and opened fire, killing a woman and injuring three other people.

Metzl said he didn't want to equate the bookstore disruption with what happened in California.

But the timing of the Politics and Prose stunt was chilling for him because Metzl had just introduced the audience to the man who had saved his grandparents and father as they escaped the Holocaust in Austria.

And then it turns out that at least one of the men stomping through the aisles at the bookstore is a vocal Holocaust denier, according to a group, Panic! in the Discord, that identifies and researches these guys.

But what about free speech? There was no violence here, no guns, just words.

Yes, sure. And the co-owner of the store, Bradley Graham, didn’t want to make too big a deal out of the incident.

“It was brazen, but mercifully brief,” Graham said.

He gets security for authors – usually celebrities — who request protection. But he doesn’t plan to change anything about the readings or the lineup.

“A few years ago, you wouldn’t think twice about something like this,” said Gloria Marchick, 80, who was visiting the District from San Francisco when her group came to the bookstore. “But today, it’s scary. You never know if it’s going to get violent.”

Truth is, political violence has already visited that block in one of Washington’s wealthier neighborhoods.

Just a few doors down from the bookstore is Comet Ping Pong, the local pizzeria that was stormed by a man firing an assault-style rifle almost three years ago because he believed the preposterous Pizzagate conspiracy that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a place that has no basement.

The place was also set on fire earlier this year, allegedly by a young man from California whose family has declared their support of the right-wing QAnon conspiracy.

So this is where we find ourselves in 2019 — a place where the threat of violence and the ugliness that fuels it is ever present, no matter where we go.

Twitter: @petulad