“Should We Be Freaking Out?”

All of a sudden, those videos from Charlottesville were everywhere: military-looking right-wing goons lunging at counterprotesters; hairspray flamethrowers squaring off against Confederate-flag spears. When we heard that a terrorist had plowed his car into a group of protesters, it seemed half shocking and half depressingly predictable. When I starting hearing the news this past weekend, I was relaxing in a late-summer reunion with some old friends, sitting around a fire, when one of them asked the question: “Should we be freaking out?”

Here’s the ILYBYGTH answer: Yes. But not because Americans will fight each other.

If you’ve been paying attention, it shouldn’t shock you that right-wing terrorists are willing to kill in the name of conservatism. It should astound all of us, though, that a leader of a mainstream political party is so blasé about it.

As I argued in my book about twentieth-century American conservatism, culture-war battles regularly and repeatedly heated up into physical conflict. In the 1930s, school board members in my new hometown promised to ignite bonfires of progressive textbooks and throttle any progressive protesters. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a 1970s textbook battle degenerated into a slurry of Klan marches, dynamite bombs, and shootings.

It’s sadly predictable; shocking only to people who are too comfortable in their self-delusion. What really is outrageous, though, is the notion that President Trump has ignored and pooh-poohed the display of white terrorism. In his diffidence, Trump has given succor and encouragement to the radical reactionaries of the white nationalist movement. And THAT should freak us all out.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying this merely because I find Trump’s policies and presidency terrifyingly out of control, even though I do. I’m saying this rather as an historian of American conservatism. As I also argued in my recent book, since the 1970s the mainstream American right has gone to great lengths to distance itself from its white-supremacist past. Just as Democratic leaders such as President Obama and Secretary Clinton made a public display of their religiosity, hoping to prove to conservative critics that they weren’t left-wing Godhaters, so too have mainstream Republicans used the strongest language possible to distance themselves from the racist right-wing of their own party.

Trump’s pandering goes against all that. So here’s what should freak us out: Trump is making a bald play against mainstream conservatism and in favor of right-wing reaction.


Leave a comment


  1. Dan

     /  August 15, 2017

    It is it really a play — as in a deliberate, organised, premeditated scheme of some sort that serves some larger political goal?

    He’s been making bald plays against mainstream conservatism all along. As a person, he has a purely situational, rather Darwinian social ethic where the only value is his own domination/power/winning over others. (And this is the American Way, is it not? What it has become?) He’s been nothing but a bald play against the veneer of secular and religious values of reciprocity (“do unto others…”).

    The debates and especially the Al Smith dinner/roast — with the vile Archbishop Dolan ensconced between the candidates — showed us what hollowed out liberal and religious public square institutions look like when they’ve come to be understood by much of the public as nothing but craven power and money-mongers who truly embrace, at heart, the same real values as Trump.

    Trump simply refuses to wear a genteel mask and clean up — his greatest hatred and struggle is aimed at that hypocritical Manhattan elite. Garrisson Keillor understood and tweaked him hard on this prior to the election but without understanding the vulnerability and emptiness of institutional Liberalism’s legitimist pretensions to a determined iconoclast.

    What people should be concerned about is that such stupid, demented, vile, and petty thuggish people are so easily smashing the (already brittle, pre-battered) “norms and customs” of liberal democracy. Because that means Trump’s more symptom than cause; he’s the virus you get when your immune system is shot. Survive him, there will be another.

    We have the same problem in Canada with Conservative leaders in bed with alt-right hate media and reaction organiser who have been in the center of the agitation, including Charlottesville. The virus has always been a global one.

  2. Agellius

     /  August 15, 2017

    I don’t follow the news so I can’t say what happened in Charlottesville. I do recall what happened in Berkeley on several occasions: Right-wing or conservative groups would hold a demonstration and they would be physically attacked by left-wing counter-protesters. Eventually the right-wingers learned to expect to be attacked, and so only those who were prepared to be attacked and to counter-attack would show up for the demonstrations, and they would be ready for a fight. The result was a street battle between thugs on both sides.

    My suspicion, while admittedly knowing little about the Charlottesville situation, but having heard bits and pieces of it, is that something similar happened there: KKK’ers and Nazis gathered, prepared to be attacked; counter-protesters attacked; and a brawl broke out.

    Once a riot breaks out, it’s ridiculous not to expect people to lose their heads and other people to get hurt.

    There was a time when the KKK was allowed to march and demonstrate, so long as they had a permit, for the sake of freedom of speech. So they would march along and people would ignore them and that would be that. Now when they march, people feel not only entitled but obliged to attack them. Well, guess what? When they’re attacked, they fight back.

    Your only stated criticism of Trump was that he was “blase” about it. But you don’t say specifically what your criticism is. It seems the main problem most people had with is comments was that he spoke of hate “on many sides”. But it’s absolutely true that there is hate on many sides. The white supremacists were not the only haters present, and were not the only ones committing physical violence. Why shouldn’t Trump have been neutral in condemning the violence on both sides?

    It’s quite possible I’m missing something and I’m open to being filled in. I don’t like the KKK or the Nazis, but even the ACLU agrees that they must be allowed to speak their minds. This is what they attempted to do in Charlottesville. Were they the attackers or were they attacked? Did they go around seeking people to attack? Or did others seek them out? I understand Antifa was there. Were they completely innocent?

    Obviously driving a car into a crowd is a murderous act and can’t be justified in any way. All I’m saying is that it takes two to tango, and I strongly doubt that the counter-demonstrators bore no blame for the violence escalating to that level.

    • Berkeley featured some of the same neo-nazi and white nationalist groups. Using “white” and often “nationalist” in their names and missions is kind of a giveaway. They’re not normal “conservatives,” just systematically enabled by them. They didn’t learn to be violent just recently either. If that’s going to be allowed, you bet there will be opposite side reactions.

      Your admitted non-understanding of recent events explains why your (to you) speculative summary of their causes is wrong. Why comment without being informed? I can send you a link to a firsthand account from a young Protestant minister who was part of the ecumenical marches. They were, of course, not armed. The militias were so heavily armed the lawful authorities were unwilling to step in. There was no reciprocity of threat or violence relating to the disturbed nazi youth who killed the young woman and injured many others.

      I’m sitting in immigration medical waiting rooms full of people from all over the world watching this news which has overtaken the Canadian news cycle again. It is beyond shameful. You need to ask yourself as an American and Catholic Christian why you are motivated to hunt for a non-existent moral equivalency.

      The question we are left with is Why? Why is the president acting in apparent defiance of norms no Republican or conservative has vocally transgressed in such a public way? There was no reciprocity of violence, no ambiguity about which side represents a plurality of Americans.

      My answer is the Right, with GOP encouragement and leadership, has done so much to erode and inflame, that even many conservatives who know something has gone badly wrong are still moved to make feeble anti-anti-fascist arguments today.

      The world watches in incredulity.

      • Agellius

         /  August 15, 2017

        I note that you didn’t answer my direct questions:

        Did the white supremacists go wandering about town looking for victims of their violence, or did the violence come to them?

        OK, they were prepared for violence. Why wouldn’t they be? Why should they not have expected to be physically attacked?

        You don’t deny that Antifa was present. Were they innocent of inciting or perpetuating the violence?

        You write, “You need to ask yourself as an American and Catholic Christian why you are motivated to hunt for a non-existent moral equivalency.”

        I have asked myself. The reason is free speech. It’s getting to the point where certain points of view are not merely condemned, but forbidden. The riots in Berkeley resulting from the scheduled Milo speech (as just one example; there are many) were entirely one-sided and had nothing to do with any hate groups. They were simply an attempt to intimidate anyone from publicly supporting Trump. Their presence at Charlottesville could only have been an attempt to prevent or disrupt the originally planned demonstration by violence. That’s what they do, and I don’t want to be next. Which is precisely why the ACLU defends the right of the KKK to demonstrate publicly: If their free speech can be suppressed, then so can anyone else’s.

        I don’t like seeing these kinds of people escaping their share of the blame.

        I don’t say it’s an equivalency. The man who attacked people with his car is absolutely at fault. He’s a murderer. But Adam’s post is mainly about Trump’s response to the violence; apparently the fact that he condemned hatred “on many sides”, and that’s what I’m responding to. The murderer deserves condemnation and the hate groups deserve condemnation. But the anti-free-speech violence deserves condemnation too.

      • No. The enemies of the open society are clear. There is no equivalence. I welcome the US clarifying that not all speech is protected and never has been.

        It’s ridiculous what it takes to get sustained mainstream attention on militant racism — not Ferguson, not the Bundys, not DAPL. Maybe because Americans generally support the militarized suppression of racial minorities, not seeing that as the heart systemic racism. So once again it takes white kids getting killed senselessly for there to be an appropriately intolerant mainstream reaction.

  3. A few semi-random thoughts – first, indeed we should be freaked out, but the Trump follies roll along. I believe that many of us are genuinely concerned about Charlottesville and the underlying rot that leads to such confrontations as well as the classic Trump response. We are also genuinely concerned about the myriad other catastrophes-in-progress being overseen by this pernicious administration. However, I also believe that many of us are not totally freaked out because our lives have not been directly and negatively impacted by the nefarious policies and actions of Trump and his minions – the social security check still shows up, the retirement funds are doing well along with the stock market, our homes continue to appreciate, gasoline is cheap, the tap water is still drinkable, and so on. Trump has not penetrated our bubble – yet. What will it take to invoke the 25th Amendment? A preemptive nuclear attack on North Korea? Military intervention in yet another sovereign country [Venezuela]?

    About the violence in Charlottesville – my understanding is that both the Alt-right and the Ctrl-left were looking to rumble, albeit that the former were packing assault rifles and high-powered hand guns and the latter had bats and sticks. However, even though I am among those who would support the free speech [while noting that not all speech is free speech] of the despicable white supremacists, I condemn responding to such tripe with violence [must be my Mennonite upbringing]. However this does not mean that we should not resist or tolerate such hateful ideologies. Exchanging hate for hate usually does not end well.

    • Agellius

       /  August 15, 2017


      You write, “However, even though I am among those who would support the free speech … of the despicable white supremacists, I condemn responding to such tripe with violence …. However this does not mean that we should not resist or tolerate such hateful ideologies.”

      Thank you for this voice of sanity. IMHO, the best response is to ignore them: Don’t go to their rallies and don’t put them on the news. That way the only people who will hear their message are those who already agree with them.

      • Thanks Agellius. Sadly it seems that sanity and rational thought are in short supply these days in the halls of power. Lord knows that I would not include the Orange One and many politicians among those who engage in logic, rationality, wisdom, etc.

      • Agellius

         /  August 16, 2017


        I agree about the Orange One and always have.

      • Dan

         /  August 16, 2017

        The number that already agrees is huge, and the difference between white nationalism and culture-warring conservative Christian politics is just a matter of inflection. The latter are huge enablers and the source of people like Richard Spencer. The role of the internet, and the established, international nature of white/christian/nationalist reaction have taken the alt-right nazi types way beyond rallies and marches as organizing tools.

        There’s nothing sane about what either of you are saying, in terms of a parity in moral justification, harm, or lethality. You’re positioning yourself well outside the mainstream and providing comfort and cover for violent racism, same as Trump.

      • I never said anything about moral parity; indeed all those who claim this, from the Narcissist in Chief to Rushbo to my racist relatives to whoever are completely off base. Leaving aside the violence, how an anyone claim that being a white supremacist, anti-Semite, race-baiting POS is equivalent to those who oppose such destructive views? Sometimes I wonder if you actually read what I write.

      • Dan

         /  August 16, 2017

        @Douglas — You and Agelius are both trying to carve out a splinter of moral authority from which you can focus blame on guys with sticks while ignoring the guys with such heavy firepower they dominated the lawful authorities. You both talk about Trump as if he’s isolated and not ideologically and politically tied to militant racists while openly inciting them. And if, say, black Chicago riots, or white cops get assassinated, you’re going to talk about “the left” and approve massive crackdowns from the state. Tell us more about you non-racist anti-anti–fascism.

      • What drivel – I never focused the blame on the Antifa; I simply noted that a portion of both sides were violent while pointing out that there certainly is no equivalence of assault weapons and flag pole sticks. And I certainly stated that there is no moral equivalence to the two sides. It would seem obvious that I despise both the white supremacists and those who enable them, such as Trump. I also never suggested that Trump is some sort of isolated, rare example of individual and institutionalized racism. I know way too many people who think and act like Trump and who believe that he speaks for them – and whenever possible I try to explain to them that their perverted beliefs and behaviors are un-American and certainly un-Christian. You are often trying to pick a fight here, and often seem to miss the point the some people here actually agree with you.

      • Agellius

         /  August 16, 2017

        Now that I have read up on the incident, my views haven’t changed. It is apparent that the counter-protesters were as aggressive and violent as the hate groups. Some of them in fact showed up armed. ( See e.g. http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-charlottesville-witnesses-20170815-story.html )

        This is not an equivalence. Violent and racist is worse than violent by itself. And murder is worst of all. But violent by itself is still bad, and it certainly contributed to the occurrence of the tragedy.

        Dan, none of us here disagrees that racism is evil and that this person who killed and maimed people with his car is a despicable scumbag. No one is disputing these points with you. The only point of disagreement is that you insist that it was acceptable to show up armed and determined to disrupt and suppress the original demonstration by violence, and we don’t.

        You seem to be contending that doing so is justified because racist speech is not, or shouldn’t be, protected by the Bill of Rights. But consider, I am every bit as persuaded of the evil of abortion as you are (and I am) of the evil of racism. Yet I am expected to restrain myself and not show up at pro-abortion rallies, armed and determined to disrupt and suppress speech advocating the killing of unborn babies.

        If I have to restrain myself from violently suppressing speech advocating baby-killing, for the sake of preserving civility in society and acknowledging the right of my fellow citizens to speak their minds, no matter how disgusting their opinions are to myself, then we both have to do the same when it comes to racists.

        If you’re telling me that it’s OK to violently suppress racist speech, but suppressing pro-baby-killing speech is forbidden (because it’s “mainstream”), I’m liable to start feeling like the game is rigged. Why do these purveyors of evil get a free pass while these others don’t? Either everyone gets to say what he wants, no matter how despicable to everyone else, or we abandon the pretense of a “right” to free speech and admit that might makes right, and the ones in power get to control what everyone else says.

        On Wed, Aug 16, 2017 at 4:16 PM, I Love You but You’re Going to Hell wrote:

        > Douglas E commented: “What drivel – I never focused the blame on the > Antifa; I simply noted that a portion of both sides were violent while > pointing out that there certainly is no equivalence of assault weapons and > flag pole sticks. And I certainly stated that there is no mora” >

      • Agellius

         /  August 16, 2017

        [Excuse the formatting of my last comment, I was actually trying to email it to myself and apparently emailed it to the blog!]

      • Dan

         /  August 16, 2017

        Douglas — I didn’t notice you agreeing with me. I noticed Agellius agreeing with you to support his perpetual attempt to focus attention on the menace of a violent left. You and he are both doing what Trump did. Add a “But [the other side]” at the end of your denunciations of racism and racists. The “but” negates everything that came before. The appropriate response in domestic terms is “Yes dear, I’m sorry — I was wrong.” Period. You can’t do that. Neither can Trump. This is what others focus on.

        Now Agellius is saying the equivalence is in violence, not moral orientation or ideology, because he sees evidence of anti-racists showing up armed. Yes, both sides had sticks and off the shelf, non-lethal hardware ill-suited to killing people. Only one side used a car to kill, and only one side had paramilitary with assault rifles, pistols, and heavy weapons caches around town. Had the police tried to disarm or remove the racist militias, there probably would have been a bloodbath. There was NO equivalence of potential or actual violence.

        Agellius, you are in the moral position now of the white woman on FOX who pressed the question of whether it’s acceptable to tear down monuments — who pressed that on two African American citizens as a “counterpoint” in a discussion of the *President’s* betrayal by mitigating and equalizing the “two sides,” just as you have tried to do.

        Finally, I’ve not said one thing about (for or against) violence of any sort here. You’ve made up false statements and attributed them to me. Your whole rationale about non-violence as a mutual restraint is unhinged; it sounds like you want to hurt people over abortion but only restrain yourself to the extent that everyone must. That’s not a moral position; it is the psychology of a mob that is pacified only by fear of punishment or reprisal. You are obliged not to use violence in political protest because of the law because it is the law. Beyond that, your Christian obligation is to obey just and moral laws as well as legitimate authorities because the church recognizes their basis in divine authority as well. Now if you think the state is illegitimate and unjust to an extent that is oppressive and not remediable by political means, there is a body of thought on the justification for revolt or insurrection. For decades the religious right has spread the idea that things like abortion may justify violence and even insurrection. Anti-racists, minority groups, and neo-confederates might all come to that conclusion as well and have done so at times. When things reach that point, people have to take a side. That is what is going on. Racist paramilitary held off the state for a day while racist thugs beat a lot of people badly and killed on. It was pretty one-sided. Your statements boil down to “they brought it on themselves” because Antifa was there. The more people like you and Trump keep alive that kind of talk, the more likely we are to see things get far, far worse.

  4. Agellius

     /  August 16, 2017


    Based on what has actually been written in this comment thread, I see only two possible ways we can be disagreeing: Either you think the counter-protesters were justified in their violence; or you think they were not justified, but that it’s wrong of people to point out that they were not justified. I disagree either way. Everything else is a verbal smokescreen.

    As far as the counter-protesters being limited to “non-lethal hardware”, the L.A. Times article that I linked to speaks of “Redneck Revolt, an armed leftist group that brought rifles to Justice Park, one of the spots where anti-racist groups had gathered”. Non-lethal rifles?
    The article goes on, “At many points during the day, groups of white supremacists approached Justice Park, but at each instance, Redneck Revolt members formed a unified skirmish line against them, and the white supremacists backed down.” So they not only brought lethal weapons, but used them to good effect. They at least were not the racists’ unarmed, helpless victims.

    • Dan

       /  August 16, 2017

      Did you read about the Jewish Temple that had an armed guard and defensive line as well? That was targeted to be burned in online forums?

      I think it’s pretty clear I have only evaluated your rhetoric, which is exculpatory of the murdering, coordinated, heavily armed. racist contingent by bringing up the small number of anti-racist groups with blunt instruments and possibly loaded firearms — the people who didn’t hurt anyone at all. Have you seen any pictures of white nationalists who were sent to the hospital with split open heads?

      I understand you want to force people to say violence is justified / not justified. I never engaged you on that poorly framed argument you’ve been having with yourself. My view involves framing it differently. Violence, especially planned political violence, has no justification — it is always its own justification, for as long as it prevails. Might does make right (define values and moral systems) in this universe, but that does not make it good or even effective. You are unwilling to face the Nietzschean reality behind your systems of rules and authorities that you need to restrain your own libido dominandi because you aren’t willing to take responsibility for it yourself. That is a lamentable state of affairs; the bourgeois revolutionaries who founded the US understood this very well. Is it ever a moral good to harm or kill people? No. It is ever necessary, to secure what we deem a greater good? Maybe. Who is justified in making that judgment call? The person who can make it. And if they are successful, and the results are mostly effective for sustaining order and human flourishing, they will be praised and revered long after their deaths. Until the cracks spread and the just-so stories grow stale, and someone starts pulling down the monuments.

      Jefferson understood what water nourishes the tree of liberty. I don’t think he’d be surprised if Monticello had been burned by a slave revolt, the British, the Union army, or some people yet to come. War, violence — it’s the realm of nature outside morality and spiritual values that have ever always been imposed by force of some kind.

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