There’s a whiff of Weimar in the air. During the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-33), Germany was threatened by Communist revolutionaries and Nazi uprisings. Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau was assassinated and violent street fighting was commonplace. Then Hitler took power in 1933.
America is nowhere near that point. But many surely agree with The American Interest’s , who wrote Sunday that “this latest round of deadly political violence has me more afraid for my country than I have ever been before.”
As he pointed out, this political violence — identity politics violence is a more precise term — began well before Saturday’s horrifying events in Charlottesville, Va., and before the election of Donald Trump. Examples include the June 2015 murder by a white racist of black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., and the July 2016 murder by a Black Lives Matter sympathizer of five police officers in Dallas.
This year we’ve seen a Republican congressional candidate shove a reporter in Montana, and a Bernie Sanders booster shooting at a House Republican baseball practice in Virginia, seriously wounding Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.
In Charlottesville, there were multiple bad actors. White nationalists and neo-Nazis uttering vile racism demonstrated against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. One of their numbers drove a car into a crowd, killing one young woman and injuring about 20 others. That’s murder, using the tactics of jihadist terrorists.
So-called Antifa (anti-fascist) counter-demonstrators attacked the Lee statue supporters with deadly weapons and disguised with masks. “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right,” tweeted New York Times reporter from Charlottesville. “I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”
As Stolberg noted, the police not only failed to separate the two groups but maneuvered them into direct and predictably violent confrontation. Antifas believe that hateful words are violence and that they’re entitled to be violent in response, as they have been on campuses from Berkeley to Middlebury — a view profoundly at odds with the rule of law. “The result,” writes Peter Beinart in the Atlantic, “is a level of sustained political street warfare not seen in the United States since the 1960s,” led by a group that is “fundamentally authoritarian.”
President Trump was widely criticized, by many conservatives as well as liberals, for his Saturday statement condemning “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” without specifically denouncing white nationalism. Barack Obama faced much less criticism in July 2016 when he lamented the Dallas police murder but went on to decry “racial disparity in our criminal justice system.”
On Monday, Trump, obviously under pressure, said, “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Then in a Tuesday Trump Tower press availability, Trump defended his Saturday statement, but was hectored by reporters for condemning the “alt-left” demonstrators and allowed himself to be drawn into needless debate over the merits of Robert E. Lee and whether protesters would target “George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” Gratuitously and apparently without evidence, he said there were “some fine people” in both groups.
Like Obama in 2016, Trump this week was technically accurate. But both presidents made themselves vulnerable to the charge of sending dog whistles to favored groups — playing identity politics. Both failed, to varying degrees and with varied responses, to deliver undiluted denunciations of criminal violence and bigotry.
What’s ironic is that the percentages of Americans who support white nationalism or antifa violence is in the low single digits. “Groups like the KKK,” reports political scientist on a 2016 survey of white Americans, “are deeply unpopular.”
But Americans have grown increasingly accustomed to the view that your politics is determined by your racial, ethnicity or gender identity. Politics is seen as a zero-sum battle for government favor. College and corporate leaders join in.
Universities sponsor separate orientations, dormitories and commencements for identity groups (are separate drinking fountains next?). A corporate CEO fires an employee who challenged the dogma that only invidious discrimination can explain gender percentages in job categories different from those of the larger population.
America today is a long way from Weimar. But identity politics threatens to get us a little closer. Possible solution: Unequivcally condemn bigotry and violence and, in the fired Google engineer James Damore’s words, “Treat people as individuals, not just as another member of their group.”