Despite their seeming unimportance in the larger scheme of things, the events in Charlottesville may well prove a seminal moment in recent American public life, for at least three reasons. First, Trump’s clearly expressed sympathy with the neo-Nazi demonstrators is an indelible stain on his presidency that may have significant consequences. Second, the decision of the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to go unmasked, lit by their own torches, and eager to be interviewed on television personalizes them and makes it increasingly difficult for apologists and temporizers to claim, as Trump did, that there were “many good people” in their ranks. Third, the neo-Nazis were openly and vocally anti-Jewish, not merely anti-Black, and that rather old-fashioned obsession puts a number of people in Trump’s administration, including his son-in-law and daughter, in a rather difficult position, to put it as delicately as I can.
A news outlet called Vice produced a more than 20 minute report on the affair, including a brilliant interview with one of its organizers, Christopher Cantwell. I understand that there is ferocious competition for your attention, but I strongly urge you to watch this lengthy report. Don’t miss Cantwell’s little exchange with the interviewer at roughly 3:40 – 4:00. You can be sure that Jared and Ivanka have seen that. I would love to be a fly on the wall when Ivanka asks her daddy whether this is one of the good people there to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
There is a great deal to be said about the so called alt-right, its emergence into the sunlight, its integration into the Republican Party, the cowardly timidity of Republicans in continuing to support Trump, and the question whether this will provoke defections from the White House staff. Others with bigger megaphones than mine have been shouting about this for six days now. I should like to make just one point that has not, so far as I know, been a part of the commentary.
The alt-right, it is said over and over again, is fueled by hatred and anger. What struck me most forcefully about the interview with Cantwell was that he did not seem consumed with anger. He seemed cheerful, happy, pleased with himself and with how the protest unfolded. He was having a very good time. I was reminded of the films I have seen of the Hitlerjugend, their eyes glowing, their faces lit with happiness. To be sure, they had hatred in their hearts, but it was, if I may put it this way, a cheerful hatred, an intense pleasure at expressing openly, in accord with their fellows, their contempt for inferior humans, for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, foreigners – for anyone not blond and blue-eyed [like Hitler or Goering or Goebbels, hem hem.]
The mostly young men marching in Charlottesville with Nazi paraphernalia were clearly on a high, exultant, happy, pleased with themselves and with what they were doing.
That is worth thinking about.