The storylines surrounding the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville continue to captivate, days after the events.
We owe that, in part, to the way the event has stoked strange connections between the nebulous world of the alt-right and the mind of Donald Trump.
One question that still hasn’t been fully unpacked is this: Was the march about Neo-Nazism, Confederacy worship, or something else that would allegedly “Unite the Right”?
Another question surrounds the event, and reporting about it. Were the protesters all “bad guys”? Or is there some truth, even if only a half-truth, to Trump’s Tuesday afternoon press conference insisting that not all of them were?
And, were the motivations of counter-protesters as innocent as initially presumed? The last day has seen increased press scrutiny around the so-called “antifa.” It’s a European-born movement of militant left-wing “antifascist” activists that has only recent taken root here in America — since Trump came to power. Trump referred to this group of troublemakers as the “alt left” in his Tuesday press conference.
Among the display of hate on the right-wing side, attempting to disentangle “foreign” from home-grown bigotry raises a new and perplexing question: What constitutes extremism in America, and who gets to define its limit?
‘Blood and soil’ is not the American way
The Economist provides some excellent, if ultimately flawed, perspective on this question. In a Sunday column reacting to the event, framed around the topic of “How Germany responds to ‘blood and soil’ politics,” its Berlin correspondent writes:
To view the footage of crowds in Charlottesville yelling Nazi slogans and flying Swastika banners is troubling anywhere. But do so from Berlin is particularly so. America in 2017 is not Germany in 1933. But the chants about “blood and soil”, the flaming torches, the Nazi salutes, the thuggery and violence turned on objectors—the whole furious display of armed ethno-nationalism—are nonetheless chillingly evocative. Similarly so is the strenuous ambivalence about it all from Donald Trump and some of his media cheerleaders. It could hardly contrast more vividly with how things are done here: Germany today is a case study in how not to give an inch to the dark politics of “Blut und Boden”.
How does Germany avoid giving in to dark politics? In part, the nation and its leaders uniformly eschew emotionalism in politics: Opponents and critics are not “traitors” or “saboteurs”; migrants are rarely characterized as “swarms” or “floods.” Plus, schoolchildren are dutifully escorted to field trips in the concentration camps. And streets and squares are named after Hitler-era resisters.
Left unmentioned by the Economist is the nation’s rigorous censorship against any expression of Nazism, its tokens or its symbols. This is broadly supported by modern Germans. Yet there is some line, not quite up to Nazism, at which juncture sits what passes for the far-right in Germany today. Yes, there are “extremist” political movements, like NPD or Alternative for Germany (AfD), in the post-Nazi Germany.
Suffice it to say that the American approach to policing this boundary of political respectability is more hurly-burly. The author continues:
Countries without Holocausts on their history books can also learn from Germany’s grown-up, vigilant and dutiful culture of remembrance.
And yet, to the Economist’s way of thinking, this “culture of remembrance” might, in America, even “mean removing Confederate symbols from public spaces.”
At the end of the day, that may well be the public will that emerges. But we shouldn’t prejudge that decision because of a national ethos of political correctness. Indeed, even Trump didn’t disagree: In his Tuesday press conference, he said that the decision about whether to remove or retain symbols of the confederacy belongs at the city, state or federal level, depending on which entity claim property on which such a memorial lies.
Nazism and its philosophy of “blood and soil” is indeed foreign to the liberalism and universalism that is at the heart of America’s civic religion. But equally foreign to our culture is modern Germany’s elite-enforced, consensus-driven view about the political parties and groupings of activists that are beyond the pale, and those that are not.
(Photo of Neo-Nazi protesters organized by the National Socialist Movement demonstrate near the opening ceremony of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Illinois, in April 2009, by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)