Noah Rothman on Charlottesville and America’s Crisis of Identitarianism
In the wake of Charlottesville and the moral equivalency debate spawned by President Donald Trump’s comments, Noah Rothman has argued that, while it’s incumbent upon the right to get its house in order and expel white supremacists from its coalition, the left would do well to examine violent tendencies within its own ranks. Rothman has been an associate editor at Commentary, a monthly conservative Jewish magazine, for two years. Since the attack he’s written “We Are Cowards,” “The Alt-Right’s Victimhood Pimps” and “What Trump Voters Heard.” He’s also written a book, to be released in 2019, called Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America.
From your perspective, and in your words, what happened in Charlottesville two weekends ago?
What happened in Charlottesville was a national tragedy, but one that was predictable. In Charlottesville, we were witness to two separate events. The first was a series of agitators on both sides who were violent and wanted to engage in violence. The second was a terrorist attack conducted by a white nationalist on peaceful demonstrators. Those two things need to be distinct because there’s no moral equivalence that can be drawn between them. It gives you a distorted picture of the nature of the threat if you conflate them.
The violence in the streets has been going on for a year, and we’ve turned our eyes away from it. This event was not distinct from an event that occurred in Sacramento in June of 2016, in which white nationalists protestors got permits, parked themselves on the State Capital steps, and [were confronted by] a group called By Any Means Necessary, which is a precursor to an antifa group in California. Everybody came to this event armed, and according to state police, it was the counter-demonstrators who initiated violence. The violence ensued, it was a melee in the streets, people were stabbed—I think ten people. Many of them were gravely injured, some critically, and the videos of this event are absolutely chilling, terrifying.
But we’ve just kind of ignored it, perhaps because it was too evocative of Weimar to have actual fascists, actual communists stabbing each other in the streets. Maybe we just didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe it was morally ambiguous because the “bad guys” in this case, the individuals who incited violence and challenged the precepts of America’s commitment to free speech and free expression, were the guys who were “anti-racists.” So, because of the lack of moral clarity and obvious villains, maybe we just didn’t want to have that conversation. I don’t know. Whatever the reasons, we didn’t have that conversation and we are reaping the fruits of that today. We turned our eyes from an actual crisis, allowed it to metastasize, and now it’s here. We’re addressing it now, but only on the periphery and with partisan blinders on.
What is that crisis?
It’s a crisis of identity politics. Identity politics is an ethos, social justice is programmatic. Social justice is the program that translates identity politics into actionable political change. And white nationalists are identity politics first, they’re Identitarians, it’s their founding ideology, and [in that way] they are not distinct from the people that they think are out to kill them and the people out to kill them are not distinct from them. They’re reflections of one another in a fun house mirror.
What do you think about Donald Trump’s responses to Charlottesville?
They were counterproductive, to say the very least. His first impulse was to say that there was violence on both sides, which was not wrong, but that was not the day to draw moral equivalencies. Because Donald Trump resents being controlled more than anything else, he’s managed to draw this story out. His reaction itself has made him the center of the story for more than a week now. It has very little to do with Charlottesville and everything to do with this president being the center of his own universe.
Giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, what do you think is the most generous interpretation of his reaction?
There’s nothing illegitimate about conservatives who resent and are fearful of iconoclasm because there is no limiting principle. Donald Trump said, “Look, they’re going to come after Washington and Jefferson next.” And the response of the intellectual left was, “That’s nonsense!” Well, guess what? That’s been happening for years.
Does anybody remember what happened after the shootings in Charleston? We did have that conversation. We’ve been having that conversation. Academic forums have been having that conversation. Colleges have been stripping their reverence for individuals who were slaveholders and debating whether or not we get rid of statues of Jefferson. You have left-wing commentators on TV today saying that we need to get rid of these people. You had an attack [discovered August 21] on a 200-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus in Baltimore. The response to that [August 23] has been on the part of [New York City Mayor] Bill de Blasio to say, “Well, maybe we should get rid of the statue in Columbus Circle.” There’s no limiting principle here, and conservatives who notice that aren’t the bad guy; they’re being intellectually honest.
The left is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. They think of themselves as acting in a vacuum. Everything they say is legitimate and everything they say is virtuous, but only saying that the right should be selective about what they hear them say.
What role do you think anti-Semitism played in this march, and what do you think that Jews should take from this saga?
Well, Jews should probably take from this whole saga that they don’t have any allies in this fight. There’s nobody on their side here. When you have masked leftists destroying property and attacking police in a vaguely Bolshevist, Year Zero kind of movement, Jews are going to be at the losing end of that. History is pretty clear on that one. The alt-Right is at least honest in the sense that they say, “We’re pretty overtly anti-Semitic.” The left wing is simply less honest about that. The violent left-wing Marxist movements have little love lost for Jews. It just takes a while to get around to them, but the violent left is as predisposed to anti-Semitism as the violent, racist right.
The anti-colonial left has plenty of its own prejudicial elements to it, and it cannot purge its worst elements because of, in my view, the doctrine of intersectionality. That’s the slippery slope. And it doesn’t take long to get to something that’s a little more violent, something that’s a little more extreme, if that is the governing ethos. The right, for all its faults in this moment, and they are myriad, has confronted these elements within it and it’s tearing itself apart. I can see why a liberal would look at this from a 30,000-foot perspective and see a united conservative Republican party that has its ugly elements within it, but it’s choosing to ignore it, but you get a little closer to the ground and there’s a civil war going on.
Tell me about the civil war on the right.
Well, the distinction on the right is between its members that adhere to an ethos that is populist and nationalist and the elements of it that are conservative, which rejects populist nationalism. Right now, you see populous nationalism on the rise and conservatism on the wane, and that may be the feature of the party moving forward. But it hasn’t really been that way for the last 40 years.
Populism bends to whatever the will of the mob is in the particular moment, and conservatism doesn’t. And there is quite a bit of irritation on the part of the members of the party who were anti-Trump, skeptical of Trump, toward that ethos. You have a Congress that was elected over the course of the last six years that’s really conservative, the most conservative Congress that we’ve seen in our lifetime. As far as they’re concerned, populism is a fad. For the most part you’ve seen Republicans who have not been deferential to this president; now you’re seeing a lot of Republicans going on record saying how frustrating this guy is, even though they have no choice but to support him, because he’s the guy that signs the legislation. Before they were on record, you saw all of them off the record—or many of them off the record—saying as much to reporters.
Democrats have convinced themselves that Republicans need to do more in order to combat Trump and Trumpism. I’m not entirely sure what they think that means. Whenever Republicans distance themselves too much from Donald Trump they dilute the Democratic argument for itself, which is that we’re going to be anti-Trump. So when Republicans do distance themselves from this president it gets downplayed and dismissed as cosmetic, but it’s not. It’s almost unprecedented.
Whose job is it to get rid of the neo-Nazis, or to address their existence?
It is the right’s job. It’s the job of your coalition to expel its members who are irresponsible and violent. So the right is responsible for the alt-right. I don’t think that’s an unfair thing to say. It’s their mission to get rid of them. The Republicans, myself included, were frustrated by the liberals, who through the course of the Obama era called anything and everything that had to do with opposing the president racist, because it was untrue. But at the same time, there were racist elements within the right and we were giving them short shrift. We weren’t paying them the due attention they deserved. Notably, we now have a president who was a birther. Getting at it early is something we should all be thinking of because now we have a cancer that we have to excise.
In fact, I doubt the left is really all that interested in doing that work, because frankly the alt-right is a small presence within this movement. Racism is not something that’s in vogue, so the more that these things come to define the Republican party, all the better for Democrats. But that’s a Faustian bargain, because you’re emboldening people who would otherwise be predisposed not to support this thing.
Do you think there’s a risk, because of the increasing prominence of the far right, that their numbers could swell?
Oh, yeah, only because they are enjoying so much undue attention. The violent elements on the left and the right are minuscule compared to the responsible elements of the American civic culture. But their prominence in media is really outsized—and has been for a very long time. Why wouldn’t these elements be swelled by the legitimacy they’re enjoying, both in media and from political figures?
We have such a fractured media environment that when the president says there are good people who supported the effort not to take down the statue, people don’t know that the organization rallying that night had almost nothing to do with that statue, didn’t really care about it. It wasn’t an organizing principle. It was a post-hoc pretense that they adopted. Secondly, they didn’t see the rally, so they didn’t know there were people marching with torchlight, throwing Hitler salutes, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
What they heard is: Yeah, I don’t want these statues down. I’m not violent, I’m a good person, so the president is right. The president says they’re coming after Washington and Jefferson—well, yeah, they are. The president is right. This is how they come to terms with the fact that maybe these guys are on our side, too, because they don’t see these things. You and I see them, but they’re not really exposed to them. They don’t see them because they don’t consume that kind of media.
So, any ideas on an answer?
We’re talking about a much bigger movement than I can be responsible for. All I can do is try to have some suggestions. But one of the things that I would stress by way of mea culpa, is that over the course of the Obama years, I was vehement in my frustration and antipathy for liberal writers who made a sport of casting a very wide net when it came to accusations of racism. A lot of that was wrong—but not all of it. And to the extent that I indulged in legitimizing violent, racist elements in my ranks—and I haven’t conducted a full audit of my conduct—I was complicit in that. And I think a lot of people on the right were. We all deserve to conduct a much broader audit of that. And we probably never will, but we should.
But there are lessons there for the left, because they’re doing the same thing. They don’t recognize it, because everything they’re doing is totally virtuous and a response to hostility among their political enemies. But it doesn’t end there.