Alt right on the night: One of the extreme right’s greatest harms may turn out to be opportunity cost | The Monthly

One of the extreme right’s greatest harms may turn out to be opportunity cost


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

August 16, 2018

Alt right on the night

By Richard Cooke
One of the extreme right’s greatest harms may turn out to be opportunity cost

Does anyone admit to being a racist anymore? Online, even self-declared neo-Nazis can insist they’re not bigoted, and for a while I collected the most dissonant of these finds. There was the British man who visited his local Asda supermarket wearing a full SS uniform, and afterwards told the Daily Mail he didn’t “hate anyone … it’s not about the politics for me.” “I just live and breathe everything Adolf Hitler,” he added, clearing up any misunderstanding. At the 2017 Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, Virginia, a 20-year-old white supremacist named Peter Cvjetanovic was photographed amid the torch-bearing, screaming mob. He too was screaming and bearing a torch, but afterwards still insisted to a Reno TV station that he was “not the angry racist they see in that photo”. So who was he?

I felt inoculated, then, for some of the awesome breaches in self-awareness at Unite the Right’s sequel in Washington, but, even pre-prepared, it was still surreal to stand in the DC drizzle and listen to white nationalists say things like “I don’t care what race you are!” “To be honest I’m not really a nationalist,” said one of the speakers on stage. “We’re even more diverse than they are!” said another, gesturing to 3000 baying anti-racism protesters across Lafayette Square. It was Walter Benjamin who thought the key to understanding fascism was its style, the elisions that could heroically unify impossible contradictions. Here was the “aestheticisation of politics” he was talking about, expressing itself through extreme cognitive dissonance and tan chinos.

I had to queue twice to get into the actual event, and was luckier than some: one writer for an African-American website didn’t even manage visual contact with the attendees. By then it was unclear what the actual event really was. Was it the rally itself, sequel to the first Unite the Right rally, which had ended in the death of a counter-protester? Was it the renewed and sizeable counter-protest? Was it the media pack itself? The imbalance in the participants – 31 white nationalists, dozens of media, hundreds of police, thousands of counter-protesters – was so huge that for a moment it felt like the body politic equivalent of an auto-immune disease.

Since the first Unite the Right had resulted in a fatality (it says a great deal about the racialisation of crime in America that this murder – caused by a neo-Nazi deliberately ramming a crowd with a car – is rarely called a terrorist act), the Peter Cvjetanovics of the world had found themselves pariahs, sometimes outcast from their own families. Unite the Right 2 was held on this inauspicious anniversary, a move too provocative even for semi-professional haters: both the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer and the white right Stormfront Radio had advised supporters to stay away. Security was close. As a sniffer dog went over our bags, one cameraman said he felt as chaperoned as a preschooler on an excursion.

For me, the vibe was closer to a sideshow or a gimp exhibit: sceptical groups on rotation, ushered behind a barrier for mid-range glimpses at a disappointing horror. It didn’t help that the rally was literally over before it began – despite a scheduled start time of five-thirty, police were vanning the attendees out by five – and this spare and goonish gathering looked even more ridiculous than usual as they fronted clutches of TV cameras under a thunderstorm. Not even the snipers on the White House roof added gravity.

Perhaps this shit-show was a sign that the alt-right had faltered, that its white tide of resentment had receded, or that there was never really a tide at all, just a big puddle. Certainly organisers took it as a sign of failure, and there was a general consensus that counter-protesters, especially antifa activists, had created a hostile enough environment to thin the marches. The antifa were sometimes pushy with reporters, especially when filmed. One masked man rationalised this to a reporter who had just had his phone thrown across the street: “It’s historically inaccurate to say you can beat fascism peacefully.”

Anti-antifa rhetoric might be Unite the Right’s most widespread legacy. It gave the right-wing media an opportunity to prove the brainstem-level idea that “both sides do it” could still operate even in the face of genocidal wannabes. “The idea that Nazis and people who oppose Nazis are somehow equatable is the most batshit fucking crazy shit I’ve ever fucking heard,” the actor Seth Rogen tweeted, a statement that already sounds like a time capsule from a saner era. Antifa groups are now routinely described as “the real fascists” or “just as bad as the Nazis”. New York congressman Peter King and his buddies introduced legislation called the “Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018”, which proposed 15-year jail terms for masked demonstrators committing felonies. The Irish-American King is also famous for his long-standing support for the Irish Republican Army. He once said that the fight against British imperialism was “a dirty war on both sides”.

There seems to be no record of a murder by an antifa member; by contrast, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that members of just one white nationalist online forum – Stormfront – committed almost 100 murders between 2009 and 2014. The best counterargument to white supremacy is still its adherents, and here in Lafayette Square were the dregs of the dregs. Like the fall of Berlin, all that was left were motley hold-outs: old men and young boys.

There were even some people of colour, more common than you might think at events like these. They wanted attention, or were there as a matter of principle taken to the absurd – an African-American man called Brandon Watson was there to support the First Amendment. Perhaps creating solidarity was a mutually assured self-destructiveness, always underrated for its seductive powers. Walter Benjamin also wrote that mankind under modern media was so self-alienated that it could “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order”. That sentiment has explanatory power for individuals as well as eras (including our own).

Television did seem more apposite than the Third Reich. This was little noted, but only a few weeks before Unite the Right 2, the Jerry Springer Show ended, after 4000 episodes of what TV Guide called “the worst show in the history of television”. You might remember that along with deadbeat husbands and teens who insisted on doing what they wanted, white nationalist guests were a favourite folk villain for the daytime audience. Perhaps Springer was cancelled only because it had been superseded.

On the ground, the menace of the first Unite the Right was gone, and in its place was something eerily reminiscent: magnets for loathing who clearly just wanted to get on TV, protected by security from a live crowd trying to hit them, all filmed for the pseudo-education of viewers at home. As I half-heartedly interviewed a programmer (of course) who wanted to sue YouTube, I couldn’t shake the feeling I might inadvertently be acting more like a talk-show host than a reporter. Springer even had a name for the unique style of brouhaha he pioneered: a “klanfrontation”.

I left struggling to formulate what I thought of the day. Some of this was necessary, maybe inevitable. As we trudged off, one anchor opened his umbrella and said “I felt like an asshole walking around with this thing all day, but it turns out I needed it.” It was a bit like that: insufficient countermeasures allowed the first Unite the Right to occur, and diminished media antibodies had allowed more virulent strains of white nationalism to spread again. An overcorrection was better than no correction.

But if the city was not paralysed by the protest, it was at least stricken by it. The attendees had essentially been given police escorts, at the price of $2.6 million, but the real cost was the opportunity cost, the now-familiar feeling that the smartest people were all somehow stuck talking about the stupidest. The inability to distinguish between virulence and influence, the threat inflation that’s fed by throwaway hate speech on the internet … There are no readily apparent solutions to these issues, and no sign of them diminishing, only changing form. For now we are stuck with platitudes. So take care of yourself, and each other.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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