I’m not convinced that standard readings of Donald Trump’s comments on last weekend’s horrible rally in Charlottesville are sufficient. He was accused of saying too little too late, which resulted in various CEOs resigning from his American Manufacturing Council, and he was accused of giving too much credit to the political sentiments of the nationalists.
Those readings may both be true, but are they enough? On the first of them, is it not possible that what Trump was actually saying was that the Left can also be provocative and uninformed and prejudiced and insensitive and rude? Here in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum supporters are all of these things, as are other branches of the alt-Left in Britain – the Socialist Workers Party, for example, and the Workers Revolutionary Party.
That’s how I took Trump’s remarks, anyway, and that’s what I’d expect him to think, in which case his main offence was not that he didn’t condemn the alt-Right sooner.
He didn’t condemn the Right on the Left’s timetable because he knows that by delaying, the Right will credit him with supporting it (which I don’t think he does) and will therefore support him in return. That matters to him because, as a demagogue and a libertarian, all he lives for is the widest possible popular acclaim. He has no other political structure.
That is to say, Trump’s hesitation of last weekend didn’t signify his political endorsement of the Right but his manipulation of the Right into endorsing him.
The real offence — and this is where it gets nastier — lies in the immorality of his posting a balanced message (“they’re both as bad as each other”) predicated on supremacist and nationalist posturing.
But even then, to write off Southern protest as racist per se is risky, even if flags were paraded with swastikas. I take it that there is a sizeable corps of population south of the Mason-Dixon line that feels greater kinship to the South than to the North, and that continues to feel (as most Germans did after 1918) that its defeat in 1865 was unfair and that Civil War issues are still live and unresolved.
We — enlightened liberals that we are — may feel that those who feel like that are benighted, but there have to be three caveats at least. The first of these is that there are many cultures across the globe that survive on the belief that their identity is at risk, and for whom the specifics of that identity may well be secondary to the mere fact that they feel it.
People want to be themselves and independent of the coercion, as they see it, of mainstream society, even at possible cost to themselves. British Brexiteers feel this way; so do most Orthodox Jews, of whom I count myself one. My father used to say that it isn’t the worst thing to like people whom one has most in common with; the worst thing is to act prejudically on that preference.
Second, there is an element of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” in the racist politics of Charlottesville: that if progressives are the enemy, as Southern nationalists see it, and progressives hate fascism, fascism becomes a plausible partner for the Southerners. This is the dynamic behind Arab fascism, an alliance that political logic should have ridiculed.
And third, like the young and culturally estranged throughout history, it’s rewarding — fun, even — to provoke the establishment. The German young from Goethe to Ranke did it by committing suicide; soldiers who survived the First World War entered an alliance with homosexuality; hippies did it in the 1960s by growing their hair and doing drugs; and young Muslims do it today by joining the Taliban and ISIS.
Borrowing Nazi paraphernalia is also not a new thing. Punks in the late 1970s did it, and because they hadn’t had family who’d been sent to Auschwitz, they didn’t have the sensitivity to understand why their wish to outrage was offensive on a level quite beyond the one they thought they were operating on.
To recognise all of this is not to side with the Right, merely to note that it takes all sorts. To recognise this is also not to side with Trump – heaven forfend – but to object that standard media opinionising on this topic has been a little too circumscribed. There’s a lot to be said about what Charlottesville meant, not least our need to observe that members of the American Manufacturing Council also have agendas – agendas as much driven by commerce as by political morality.
In short, much more thought needs to be given to this than has been evident so far. Sloganising on either side does nothing more than help the chaos that Trump milks so effectively.