A 2018 march against the Unite the Right rally in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images
In the two years since white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia, their brothers-in-arms have killed dozens in the U.S. alone. In Pittsburgh and El Paso, in Poway and Gilroy, white-nationalist ideas have influenced, or directly informed, acts of mass violence. The contagion is not limited to the U.S., and outside our borders, it continues to spread — to New Zealand, where an Australian man murdered 50 Muslims at worship in March, and recently to Norway, where a 21-year-old man just tried and failed to replicate New Zealand’s horror in Oslo. White-nationalist violence did not begin when James Fields drove his car into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and murdered Heather Heyer, but Charlottesvile escalated existing hostilities.
White nationalism is an international phenomenon, but it is also an American tradition, as Jamil Smith argued in a recent piece for Rolling Stone. But though the disease remains constant, its symptoms have evolved with the times. Our era’s high fever is the mass shooting, which proliferates along with the close call. Last Thursday and Friday, police in Florida and Nevada arrested two men for making credible threats of violence; one threatened a local Walmart after the El Paso shooting, and the other had stockpiled bomb-making materials to attack a gay nightclub and a synagogue. The prospect of further violence is a question with a certain answer: It will happen again, soon. The only questions are where and when.
Into this breach rush the nation’s elites, desperate to look as though they have solutions, or at least a scapegoat, at hand. President Trump has blamed the shootings on mental illness and violent video games. Some suggest more specific reforms. The FBI Agents Association wants to make domestic terrorism a federal crime. Others have suggested revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make social-media platforms liable for hate speech by their users. Still others have called for stricter gun control.
Gun control would at least mitigate the level of violence that white nationalists are able to inflict. But the other two suggestions, which are designed to stop the spread of white-nationalist ideology and to more harshly penalize white nationalists for committing or planning violence, may fall short of the change we need. As Melissa Gira Grant observed in The New Republic, any project to revise Section 230 would grant Congress the power to decide which views deserve censorship. That’s a dubious proposition. Grant cites the example of SESTA-FOSTA, which built out a similar exception to Section 230 for prostitution and killed websites that allowed sex workers to advertise and communicate with each other in safety. In this case, Grant continues, “reform” actually “resulted in a reported increase in exploitation and violence for this community.”
It’s not hard to imagine an outcome where a revised Section 230 would also backfire and restrict left-wing speech. Conservatives, including Trump, persistently apply the myth of the persecuted right-winger to the social-media age. The White House is reportedly considering an executive order that would direct the Federal Communications Commission to penalize social-media companies that — allegedly — discriminate against conservative views. “If the internet is going to be presented as this egalitarian platform and most of Twitter is liberal cesspools of venom, then at least the president wants some fairness in the system,” a White House official told Politico, which first reported the existence of a draft order. Trump isn’t known for his logical consistency, but his belief that conservative opinions are marginalized online is of a piece with his apparent conviction that the left is just as vitriolic and violent as the far right. On his own Twitter account, itself a constant source of racism and lies, he threatened to designate antifa a domestic terror group. Right-wing acts of violence are responsible for a mounting body count, but Trump would rather pretend that the left is the real security threat. So would members of his party. In July, before the shooting in El Paso, Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana introduced a resolution to classify “Antifa” as “a domestic terrorist organization.” As Vice News reported at the time, the senators claimed that “Antifa is a movement that intentionally combines violence with the group’s alt-left positions.”
The GOP’s interest in linking antifa to domestic terror is nonsensical for a number of reasons. Antifa isn’t a singular entity but a loosely allied network of activists committed to direct action as a form of self-defense against white nationalism. There’s no factual basis for declaring it a domestic terror group, either. Some activists have been linked to isolated violent incidents, like a recent attack on Andy Ngo, a pundit with far-right sympathies and an explicit antipathy for Muslims. But murder and mass violence are integral to white-nationalist, not anti-fascist, politics. At this point in the Trump presidency, it should be clear that anti-fascists are right to think that white nationalism presents an immediate threat to public safety. They’re right, too, that direct action — whether it’s no-platforming, or an occupation, or a die-in on Capitol Hill — makes it more difficult for white nationalists to sell their message to the public. Arguments that cast anti-fascist activism on campus and elsewhere as misguided, or even counterproductive, stem often from what writer Maximillian Alvarez called “the fear of politics.” That fear, he wrote, “translates into a paralyzing caution in the name of ‘pragmatism’ and a white-knuckled grip on the status quo.”
Someone has to reclaim the public square from white nationalists. That takes popular struggle, as the anti-lynching activists understood in the 20th century and as their political descendants understand now in their battle against mass incarceration and the extrajudicial killings of black Americans by the police. Had early labor organizers been more tentative, and less militant, in their fight for basic rights, workers would have far fewer resources at their disposal now. Justice is disruptive.
Cruz and Cassidy can’t do much about “Antifa” without changes to federal law — the same changes suggested by some as a response to white-nationalist violence in El Paso. There is no specific statute that recognizes domestic terrorism as a federal crime. Lawmakers could create one, and there are valid arguments for and against such a change, as Charlie Savage recently reported for the New York Times. As Savage notes, Mary McCord, a former Justice Department official, contends that a domestic-terror statute would allow the federal government to charge white-nationalist conspirators like Christopher Hasson for building an arsenal for use in an attack. Others worry that such a new statute could facilitate violations of a person’s First Amendment right to express certain views. That, in turn, could affect anti-fascists and liberal activists right along with white nationalists.
The possibility that a domestic-terror statute could be weaponized against the left doesn’t completely invalidate arguments in its favor. But the prospect does clarify the limitations of the legal system as an effective counter to white-nationalist violence. The federal government already has the resources to better track and assess the risk of white nationalists. It’s opposition, really, that the GOP wants to quell, whether it comes from anti-fascists or other protesters; as Kelly Weill reported for the Daily Beast in 2018, Trump floated the possibility of criminalizing protest after activists disrupted Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. “I don’t know why they don’t take care of a situation like that … I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters,” he said. “You don’t even know what side the protesters are on … In the old days, we used to throw them out. Today, I guess they just keep screaming.” Trump and his party prefer mute acquiescence to protest. In silence, the white nationalism at the heart of the conservative political project will flourish.
A thriving protest movement won’t end white supremacy overnight. What it will do, however, is help drive white nationalism from the public square. The future we need won’t be born in a courtroom or a congressional office. It will come from the streets.