Citizen Green: Why Charlottesville matters

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White supremacists in Charlottesville last month (photo by Jordan Green)

The continuing skirmishes between the extreme right and radical left can seem distant and irrelevant to those not directly invested in their outcome. And there’s a tendency among people who embrace respectability politics to shun coverage of groups on both the far right and left that are willing to use violence to advance their aims, under the misguided belief that ignoring them will make them go away.

But people should pay close attention to what transpires in Charlottesville, Va. — a liberal college town three hours north of the Triad that’s a kind of East Coast analogue to Berkeley — when white supremacists square off against militant activists committed to racial justice on Saturday.

Beyond the glaring and obvious potential for bloodshed, the confrontation portends important clues about the emergence of new forces in American political life. As the nation’s political center continues to deteriorate, the vacuum created by dysfunctional government will increasingly drive people to seek solutions outside of conventional institutions.

The pull to the radical left is obvious: As the US Justice Department abandons its commitment to racial equality in everything from policing and elections to academic admissions, progressives will increasingly fend for themselves instead of trusting government institutions for protection. The rise of overt white supremacy is rightfully seen as an imminent threat to survival of people of color, immigrants, Muslims and LGBTQ people.

For conservatives grounded in patriot ideology, the Republican Party’s repeated failure to accomplish even as basic a goal of dismantling Obamacare can only undermine faith in government. As Trump’s political troubles compound, they will become increasingly frustrated while blaming the deep state and mainstream media for preventing their president from carrying out his promises.

Further to the right of the patriot movement, the white supremacist or white nationalist vanguard has markedly different aims and motivations. Many of the progressive urbanites who make up the core of Triad City Beat’s readership probably don’t distinguish between the two. But their differences are critically important: While the patriot movement is rallying behind the president, white supremacists are eagerly looking forward to the collapse of the presidency in the anticipation that white people will seek a strong leader from within their ranks. As the former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard and notorious white supremacist David Duke has put it, the movement’s support for Trump is based on “not the man, but the means.” And while the patriot movement is fundamentally nostalgic, the white supremacist mode is revolutionary.

There are currently deep divisions between patriots and white supremacists, but if the latter can accomplish a merger or subsume the former then the republic is in real trouble.

Charlottesville became a flashpoint for political conflict in the United States because of white resentment over the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments. Richard Spencer, a white supremacist whose ascendance coincided with Trump’s election, organized a torch-lit rally around the statue of Robert E. Lee in April. Efforts by the left in Charlottesville to deny a platform to racists in Charlottesville, in turn, have been used by white supremacists to issue charges that free speech is under attack — a unifying cause on the right. What started as a supposed defense of “Southern heritage” has metastasized into “Unite the Right,” bringing Spencer together with overtly fascist organizations like the Traditionalist Workers Party and the National Socialist Movement.

Brad Griffin, aka Hunter Wallace, one of the white supremacist movement’s leading propagandists, attempted to manipulate the patriot militias’ conception of themselves as the guardians of free speech and public order.

“There hasn’t been a far-right event this large in the United States in over 25 years,” Griffin wrote in a direct appeal on Aug. 4, “and by the end of the day the antifas and [social justice warriors] could be very, very, very triggered. Someone has to protect the public.”

Many members of the patriot movement appear to be taking the bait.

Doc Smith, a patriot activist who hawks homemade beef jerky to finance road trips to skirmish with the left, described the intentions of his crew, known as the Hiwaymen, in a provocative Facebook Live video on Aug. 3.

“You never know where we’re going to turn up,” he said in a put-on roguish English accent reminiscent of Motörhead’s Lemme Kilmister. “We’re just looking for somewhere to start some s***.”

Then he laughed and reverted to the warm and gruff middle Tennessee cadence that is his natural medium.

“Actually, we ain’t looking to start some s***; we’re just looking to step into some,” he said. “And there’s gonna be plenty in Charlottesville, so if you like to swing a stick, that’ll be the place to be.”

Patriot activists like Smith, who profess allegiance to the Constitution, likely see themselves as mustering to scrap with antifas, not acting as the shock troops for fascism.

But Griffin and his overt Nazi confederates have another idea. In a chilling manifesto published on Aug. 4, Griffin wrote about white nationalists’ use of social media to “recruit from a vast and growing pool of culturally alienated, economically distressed, college-educated and working-class white millennial males.”

Young white men unsettled by a perceived loss of status due to the “browning of America,” advances in LGBTQ rights and the growing insistence of Black Lives Matter are ripe for revolution, Griffin says, adding that mainstream media, academia and liberal clergy no longer dominate the national discourse.

“Trump showed how ripe they are for a fall for all the reasons mentioned above,” Griffin writes. “The long-term trends are only going to be more favorable to us. Fifty years ago, they could create ‘a story about race in America’ in a place like Selma that could move legislative mountains. Now, we have all the tools we need to create our own ‘story about race in America,’ an increasingly receptive disaffected audience, and all the tools we need to mount a powerful challenge to the status quo.”