The entire beginning of the year has felt like mourning as we say goodbye to one of the most charismatic, intelligent and dignified standard-bearers of Violent American Imperialism in history, and hand the keys to the castle over to a tantrum-throwing man-child that no one took seriously until it was too, too late.
There are lessons to be learned in our complacency, and we should all be looking for ways to pry our brains open for them. We cannot go on the way we have up until now, thinking that justice and equality and good ideas are in any way inevitable. We made, collectively as a society, a very serious mistake that came in two parts. The first part was that we failed to field a meaningful alternative to the status quo at a time when the status quo was being openly questioned by the electorate on both sides. Donald Trump represents an ascendancy of hyperconservative radicalism, and the milquetoast liberal-centrism of Hillary Clinton was no antidote. Even Bernie Sanders’ modest reformism, backed with admittedly fiery language, was nothing more than advocating a shift toward something like what Europe has prospered under for decades. The Overton window in America simply isn’t open wide enough to see all the way to a radical-left alternative.
The second, larger part, was the obvious fact that out of the people who voted, a strategically placed minority voted for Donald Trump. That is a thing that happened and ultimately they’re the ones culpable for putting him in office, yes. I’ve read some pretty bitter takes on why they did it, starting with the obvious fact of his white supremacist rhetoric and his primary-school-level yearnings for an idealized America that never actually existed, moving through other reasons such as the GOP rank-and-file’s longstanding smear campaign against Hillary Clinton. There are even people, voices in the wilderness, who are pointing out that very, very many voters in flyover-America just don’t have anything to lose and don’t care what damage Trump would do, because they don’t have a community left to destroy. The greater percentage of the damage will fall on those ‘coastal liberals’ who have left rural communities behind, they say, and who have become the enemy of small-town America.
What very few want to admit, though, is that all of these things are true, and that it wasn’t any single one that brought us to this stumbling point in the history of civilization. Rather than winning under a singular uniting factor, Donald Trump won by welding a junkyard-robot out of dozens of mismatched pieces of rusting ideology. White supremacy is, of course, the undercurrent of it all. But that isn’t what people mean when they say “most Trump voters aren’t racists.”
But the question is whether it matters that “most Trump voters aren’t” that kind of racist. What matters is that they have emboldened, empowered, and given cover to that kind of racist. They’ve raised the corpse of antebellum, overt white supremacy and turned it into a shambling zombie.
Then they put the zombie in a suit and made it talk on television.
And then someone ran up and punched it in the face.
Richard B. Spencer is a 38-year-old neo-Nazi. He’s not much older than I am, though he’s younger than some of you reading this. He’s spent his short life studying English and European history and getting fired from conservative magazines for being ‘too extreme,’ around the same time that posters were being printed of President Obama with a Hitler toothbrush-mustache. He’s a man who has openly demanded to know ‘why the black race should even be allowed to stay around at all,’ who got run out of his own town for trying to organize a neo-Nazi rally, and who for some reason had a microphone offered to him on a streetcorner during Trump’s inauguration, leading to one of the most fantastic moments in the entire sad circus, and allowing us to ask a very important question at a very important time:
The answer seems to depend on who you ask, and has become something of a barometer for how far to the right you lean. Haggard old middle-left templars like AlterNet seem to think it’s pretty okay. Most of the hardcore left cheered, or wished the anonymous kid had had a brick instead. Get toward the center and it’s a lot of “we asked the experts” coverage without taking a position, meanwhile ensuring that Richard Spencer gets even more airtime - which, of course, is blamed on the guy who did the punching and not the guy who did the Nazi-ing. Move rightward and the National Review says “No, of course you can't.” (In retrieving that link, I note that National Review’s top bar of scrolling ads features two hypersexualized white women. I’m sure it’s some kind of coincidence.
Anyway, since you asked, my personal theory on it is this:
Round-about a hundred years ago, a bunch of white people in America thought that it was time to ‘take charge of human evolution’ instead of leaving it to chance. The American National Academy of Science, the Carnegie Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation and many other well-heeled trusts organized book-publishings and conventions specifically devoted to the blooming new field of eugenics. In these books and at these conferences, the question was seriously raised as to what the poor “Nordic” race was to do about all this degenerate blood floating around in the human species.
The answer, it turned out, was a very wordy over-explanation that boiled down to “we should probably just kill them all.”
Nazism didn’t originate this whole idea of ‘white supremacy,’ folks. It pre-dates America, certainly, but the modern incarnation is as American as apple pie. The Nazis learned it from us.
Anyway, Hitler became a fanboy of a particular American racist screed and the rest is actual, bloody, genocidal history that you can find it in any textbook, along with decades of forehead-clutching and where-did-we-go-so-wronging in the aftermath, as we all tried to imagine how a whole culture got swept up in this stuff. And that’s all to the good - when you make a mistake, you should own it and ask how to prevent repeating it - but it’s small comfort to the people who had no power over the hands doing the wringing, and who had no way to prevent the madness from taking hold again.
These marginalized people were faced with what William Vollmann calls ‘immanence,’ the physical presence of a legitimate and lethal threat. In moments of immanence, one is justified in doing anything - anything - to save oneself. But what if it’s a whole race on the chopping block? What if the white people advocating genocide blend right in amongst everyone else? What if you can’t tell who the enemy is, except the ones who speak out against genocide?
At some point, the system starts to cater to the madness, to give it ‘equal time.’ It starts saying “we should hear all views.” Well, we have. We listened to the Nazis (oh, yes, we did) for far, far longer than we ought to have, and meanwhile, never intending honest engagement anyway, the Nazis built their power, they took over arms of government and finally overthrew control of the state entirely. Then they went to war. They decided that they really wanted to act out this whole “We’re better and we should kill everyone who sucks” fantasy they had.
They went to war with (ballpark figure) 95% of the human species. Not just those who were formally engaged in warfare against the Axis Powers, but the vast numbers of people who didn’t fit their Aryan ideal. They went to war with reality itself, in many ways, from Hitler’s weird belief in Germanic paganism and ‘lost artifact-weapons’ to the more mundane and contemporary ‘alternative facts’ that we’re still seeing today.
Something important happened, though. Geopolitics were what they were at the time, but we’ve all collectively decided that Nazis go alongside Zombies on the very short list of “people it’s always okay to kill.” Our video games reflect it, our movies reflect it, our language reflects it.
And yes, sure, we answered killing with killing instead of hugging it out with the white supremacists. There are undoubtedly thousands of unsung heroes in the nonviolent resistance to the rise of Hitler, but it’s worth noting that they had no bargaining power at all without being backed by force, and are thus immortalized only in memory.
When it came down to it, the Nazis were off the fucking deep end and we were never going to crowd them all into city hall and have a vociferous debate about the merits of genocide as a state policy. We were never going to beat their violence with nonviolence alone. They were a brushfire that we couldn’t bring water to fast enough, so we decided to stomp it out instead.
The problem was, we didn’t get all of it. We dismantled the Nazi war machine, even obliterated huge swaths of the German heartland. But we didn’t do the intellectual work of stomping out Nazi-ism, and so embers of that brushfire remained, and started patchy little fires elsewhere.
So we’ve already determined on an international, historic, NEVAR 4GET scale that it’s totally okay to stomp Nazis wherever you see them. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that. We sent a whole generation of soldiers off to kill Nazis, and when they got back, we christened them The Greatest Generation. Killing Nazis is as American as the ideology that spawned them, it seems.
In any case, now when we find those little ember-fires, we know what the rules of the game are. We know that, if we can, if we have the time and resources, we can bring water to put the little fires out. But if that fire is threatening a house right now, if there are people in danger right now and water is very far away and very very expensive,well, the Old Pact is still on: It’s still okay to just fucking kill Nazis.
If you align yourself (by name or by deed) with Nazism, you don’t just get the good stuff like the cool uniforms and the unnervingly compelling architecture. You also get added to the short list of the People It’s Always Okay To Kill.
Given the environment of hostility he has fomented, given the horrific, cruel, absurdly violent things he’s said, given the poisonous thoughts sloshing around in his brain, Richard Spencer is very lucky he got to walk away from that street corner at all, and the people wringing their hands and clutching their pearls about ‘nonviolence’ and ‘pacifism’ and “my right to swing my fist ends when another’s nose begins” have clearly never had their noses threatened by someone on live television, have never had real-world consequences enacted on them by racist demagogues in faraway places, and such people should get off the fucking business of telling marginalized, threatened communities how they may or may not resist sources of immanent violence.
And now, the weather.
Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on March 29, 2017.