From Stunned Shock to Starting Point (or: This is Not The Story I Thought I’d Be Writing Today)

Yesterday, in the scramble to put out a weekly draft that included information on Trump’s statements, I drafted this paragraph:

“After several days of equivocating, Trump took questions on the Charlottesville rallies at a press conference about infrastructure policy. He issued very strongly-worded impromptu statements that were much more supportive of white nationalism than condemning, and it’s extremely important that we watch how the country responds to them. Among the most important things to track were his false equivalence of Robert E. Lee with George Washington; his false characterizations of “the alt-left that came charging at the alt-right” and “[a mob with torches chanting ‘Blood and soil’] protesting very quietly” on Friday; and his assertions that the white supremacist group on Saturday was unfairly characterized (despite the murder that occurred at the gathering). These statements made his affiliations sufficiently clear that David Duke, former KKK leader, thanked him for his “honesty and courage” in speaking. We need to take that seriously, because it illustrates just how much his words are further emboldening white radical groups. These behaviors are not normal or acceptable, and it’s important to contact our reps to make sure they know that.”

At the time that I wrote this, it was an accurate (if incomplete) summary of the day’s events. Today, I had planned to draft information about how and why, exactly, his rhetoric was wrong. But somewhat miraculously, I don’t need to; the nation appears to already know it. In the last twenty-four hours, we’ve started to see real consequences for Trump as more and more people moved to distance themselves from his rhetoric and his stance in general. Here are the highlights and recommended reading:

Detailed, firsthand narratives documenting Saturday’s events.

Many, many people put out credible firsthand accounts (both self-published and professionally-published) of what actually happened in Charlottesville. Though I was not personally present on the scene, by happenstance my household and I are close to several people who either live in Charlottesville or headed into the city to protect it ahead of the Unite the Right rally. As a result, many of these accounts — of activists, of street medics, of residents — were written by people I personally know, and whose narrative I definitely trust. A few of these folks are people I’ve known a decade or longer. This outpouring of stories illustrates the extent to which locals were terrified of the fascist presence pouring into their city, and exactly how and why people needed help from others to withstand intimidation and attacks. The accounts also illustrate why so many people refer to the gathering itself, as well as the vehicular manslaughter, as “domestic terrorism.”

More information on the so-called “alt-left.”

One incredibly helpful thing the Washington Post did today was publish information on antifa history in response to Trump’s statements about the “alt-left.” If you don’t have time to read, here’s a quick-and-dirty summary: “Antifa” is short for “antifascism,” and as the name suggests the groups arose to counteract national fascist activity. They first began to counter Musselini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Franco in Spain, and have popped up at various points of history (in America, first gaining real traction in the 1980s in response to the KKK). They are gaining spotlight now in 2017 for obvious reasons, but they are not a new phenomenon. Antifa, more-or-less by definition, advocates popular resistance to fascism rather than reliance on a (likely corrupted) police force or political system; because it shares roots with anarchism, it does sometimes (but not always) include destruction of property or defensive violence. Many of the firsthand accounts of Charlottesville give concrete examples of ways that the antifa and other activist movements engaged and worked together on Saturday. As the accounts suggest, antifa were not the only people working to counter white nationalism on that date, making it even less clear what “alt-left” meant as Trump used it — but specifically meaning ‘antifa’ is a common interpretation.

More instructions on the so-called “alt-right.”

Incredibly, the Associated Press instructed outlets today to limit use of the term ‘alt-right,’ noting, “it is meant as a euphemism to disguise racist aims.” This is a giant step forward that activists have been trying (in vain) to get formal news outlets to take for months. If you don’t distinguish yourself from white supremacists or white nationalists, the official instructions seem to say, then that is what we will call you.

Political consequences for Trump.

This is the really big question mark that was floating above my head as I wrote yesterday — would anyone in power care about what had happened? Would anybody do anything? In an era when politicians denouncing Trump’s actions and voting for his policies has become common, this was a very valid question, and I am relieved to discover its answer.

Evolution of Journalism.

Immediately after yesterday’s press conference, CNN was (correctly) calling “alt-left” a “made-up term.” The Washington Post today described yesterday’s press conference as “the nail in the coffin for ‘both-sides’ journalism,” a problem that has plagued the press since the election cycle (and widely regarded as part of how we got into this mess). These descriptions illustrate a shift in thinking among mainstream news outlets that has been slowly building for some time as the Trump administration continually demonizes ordinary, established publications. These headlines don’t come from a vacuum, but they do suggest we’ve reached a turning point.

The Bottom Line

All of these things begin to paint a picture of a country that is slowly waking up, recognizing the state we are in, and beginning to take affirmative steps that activists have longed to see taken for quite some time. As an advocate and activist, I really cannot overstate just how welcome this is.

We have a long climb ahead of us as a country, and I won’t sugarcoat that. But it seems that we have, at the moment, reached a vista.

This Should Probably Be More Self-Evident Than It Is

Though I don’t believe the inherent morality of humankind is improving with time, the available technology, and particularly our ready access to information, absolutely has. In Jackson’s era, it was possible to go one’s entire life believing racist things that were never disproved within one’s immediate frame of reference. In our current information-laden era, in contrast, it is possible to go to websites whose express purpose is to research rumor and belief and articulate their factual underpinnings — and we have ample scientific evidence negating the idea of racial superiority. Further, the entire nation literally just lived through eight years of efficient governance by a Harvard-educated black man. No one is saying that Obama was not an effective President; in fact, the common Breitbartian complaint and battle cry is that it’s necessary to undo all that President Obama accomplished–because that is a long list.

In other words, antebellum America had commonplace racist beliefs and rigid societal structure that strongly restricted disproof of these beliefs. We, in contrast, have ready access to Snopes and a black President.

This is probably obvious to you, as well it should be, but it also has an important corollary that I haven’t heard anyone talking about:

In this era of ready information, belief in the myth of white supremacy requires more than mere ignorance; it requires active and intentional disregard of available knowledge. For this idea to find purchase, it must be inherently more comforting to the recipient than an acceptance of meritocracy. The myth of supremacy is a security blanket that white racists are refusing to outgrow, and rather than accepting facts they are cocooning themselves in untrustworthy and laughably false information in order to protect the myth. There is no ‘empathy’ that will get around this, because it is the reaction to the myth of superiority that is driving it and the person has already preemptively rejected egalitarian progress.

This is why it is so hard to ‘go high when they go low.’ This is why ‘meeting people halfway’ is a myth. White supremacy in this day and age is a primitive ego defense driven by an ugly desire to see other people fail, and it actively drives society backward.