Posts Tagged ‘white nationalism’

Obama’s Right-hand Man on How and Why Trump Messed Up on Jerusalem

December 23, 2017

David Axelrod was a special adviser to Obama and worked on the Mideast peace process. He believes Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is indicative of a ‘confused’ foreign policy, which could have dangerous implications for Israel

By Tzach Yoked Dec 22, 2017 6:04 PM

David Axelrod speaking at the Institute of Politics, the University of Chicago, in 2012.

Barack Obama’s former right-hand man believes that when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital earlier this month, he could have done so in a way that tried to advance the peace process.

Although David Axelrod calls Trump’s decision a “destabilizing” move that may have dangerous implications for the region, he also says that “if you were going to take this huge step – and this was an enormously valuable step [to Israel] – it should have been in the furtherance of the peace process.

“There should have been some concessions relative to settlements or to other issues in exchange for it, and [Trump] didn’t do it and I think that was a mistake,” adds Axelrod, echoing Thomas Friedman’s recent op-ed in the New York Times.

Axelrod believes that not only will Trump’s move hurt the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, it will “certainly make the U.S. less able to act as a broker, as a force in bringing the parties together around any peace agreement.”

Trump’s Jerusalem declaration dominated the start of Haaretz’s interview with Axelrod on Tuesday (two days before the UN General Assembly delivered its stinging rebuke to Trump by voting 128 to 9 on a resolution demanding that the United States rescind its December 6 declaration).

U.S. President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence behind him during the announcement that the United States is recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, December 6, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence behind him during the announcement that the United States is recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, December 6, 2017.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Axelrod says there’s a good reason American presidents never previously recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, noting that none of the leaders of the Israel Defense Forces ever advocated for such a move.

He was personally involved in U.S. efforts to advance the peace process, so he knows what he’s talking about when he says Trump’s move and the way it was taken “clearly creates more distance between the U.S. and the Palestinians – and if the U.S. is to play a constructive role, that’s not a good development.”

When told that some in Israel saw Trump’s move as a response to Obama’s controversial decision in the last month of his presidency not to veto a UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Axelrod defends that particular decision. It was the result of “frustration at [a] lack of progress, perhaps even lack of good faith in the process and a concern about American credibility around the issue,” he says.

According to Axelrod, “This permanent state of occupation is going to continue to be an enormous burden for Israel in terms of how the world looks at Israel. That’s a concern, and it should be a concern. I’m sure that’s what motivated [Obama] in that decision.

“Obama’s strong belief is that Israel’s survival as a democratic Jewish state relies on the two-state solution,” he adds. “It’s important to resolve the issue. He tried in many ways to make the case to Netanyahu and the Palestinians – and there are disappointments there as well – but he handled that in a way that he thought left the greatest possibility of success.”

‘Self-hating Jew’

We were speaking a day after Trump unveiled his national security strategy at Washington’s Ronald Reagan International Trade Building on Monday. But while the U.S. media was analyzing Trump’s speech, the focus in Israel was on a report published on the Politico website, which claimed the Obama administration had undermined a 2013-2014 law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by Hezbollah, in order to help secure the Iran nuclear deal.

“During the negotiations, early on, [the Iranians] said listen, we need you to lay off Hezbollah, to tamp down the pressure on them, and the Obama administration acquiesced to that request,” a former CIA officer told Politico. “It was a strategic decision to show good faith toward the Iranians in terms of reaching an agreement.”

Axelrod refuses to comment on the Politico report, which he says he hasn’t had the chance to read carefully. But when asked about some of the responses to the story in Israel – including one by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid that “Obama must return his Nobel Peace Prize” if the Politico story is correct, and another by Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi that the report is not surprising given Obama’s “persistent efforts to give Iran, [Hassan] Nasrallah’s patron, legitimacy at any price” – Axelrod doesn’t seem at all surprised, even if he finds it hard to understand the negative attitude toward the president whom he describes as a big supporter of Israel.

”I speak now not just as an adviser or as an American, but as a Jew,” Axelrod says. “I know what motivated [Obama]. I know that he had deep feelings about Israel and support for Israel – it was reflected in the amount of aid he extended – and he desperately wanted to help bring about a resolution to this ongoing state of uncertainty that exists.”

A demonstration in Lebanon against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, December 22, 2017.
A demonstration in Lebanon against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, December 22, 2017.Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP

Yet Axelrod admits Obama’s desperate desire to bring peace to the region was not met with such an enthusiastic response from the Israeli side, especially Netanyahu, whom Axelrod sees as one of the main reasons for the continued hostility toward Obama.

“I know that at times Obama aggravated Netanyahu, and Netanyahu was very vigorous in response politically,” Axelrod says. “I think his [Netanyahu’s] own comments helped to create some of the antipathy you hear expressed toward Obama, and I think it had some impact.”

Axelrod doesn’t stop there, and while he is careful not to accuse anyone of overt racism, he doesn’t seem to rule out that Obama’s color and background may have been a factor. “I would hope there were no other deeper, darker motivations to people’s attitude toward President Obama, but I would leave that to others to speculate,” he notes.

But it wasn’t only Obama who was the frequent target of Netanyahu’s negative comments. In one of the most heated and explosive demonstrations of the high tensions between the two administrations, Netanyahu was quoted in 2009 as calling Obama’s closest circle “self-hating Jews” – a comment many believe was directed at Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, who was the White House chief of staff at the time.

“[Netanyahu] doesn’t know me, so I took it as just an ignorant comment,” Axelrod says now. “But leaving me out of it, Rahm’s name is Rahm Israel Emanuel; his father is an immigrant from Israel; he famously came to Israel during the Gulf War in 1991 to volunteer; his commitment to Israel and its security and its future is manifest, so it was an absurd [comment]. I think it’s fair to say that disagreement with Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t translate into either opposition to Israel or to one’s faith or legitimacy as a Jew. Those are separate issues, but Netanyahu seems confused about it.”


In that national security strategy speech on Monday, Trump repeated a common refrain from his first year as president, attacking his predecessors in the White House for engaging “in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home.”

The speech mostly focused on economic strength and defending U.S. borders. But Trump again slammed the Iranian nuclear agreement, calling it a “disastrous, weak, and incomprehensibly bad deal.” He also blamed previous leaders for allowing “terrorists such as ISIS to gain control of vast parts of territory all across the Middle East.”

Trump famously disavowed the nuclear deal in October when he blamed Iran for “not living up to the spirit of the deal” and spreading “death, destruction and chaos all around the globe.” But he passed the ball to Congress, which now needs to decide whether to draft new sanctions against the Tehran regime.

Axelrod says Trump’s Iran move is indicative of his entire presidential approach. “The things he does, it’s all about the impact it has in the moment and how it will play in the moment – it’s not about a long-term strategy.

“His stand on Iran is consistent with his fundamental habit of trying to eradicate all policies that were cornerstones of the last administration,” Axelrod says. “On Iran, he did take the steps that he took, and it’s not clear what it will mean. Now it’s about Congress acting, and it’s not clear if they will do anything about it.”

Despite Trump’s constant criticisms of the deal (“One of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”), it’s important to note that Axelrod has no second thoughts on the Iran agreement – which is considered one of Obama’s main foreign policy achievements, but one that is often criticized by Netanyahu as a bad deal. “I strongly support the deal,” Axelrod says. “It did delay their nuclear ambitions. It did add much more intrusive inspections. It did take us away from the break we were at before the agreement – and nobody really argues that point.

“The point Trump and Netanyahu make,” he continues, “is that there are other elements of what Iran is doing that the agreement doesn’t address. But it was never meant to address those things. It was meant to address the singular issue of whether Iran gets a bomb – and it delays that hopefully forever, [but] certainly for a long time.”

Tourists kissing in front of a mural depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing each other, Bethlehem, October 29, 2017.
Tourists kissing in front of a mural depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing each other, in Bethlehem, October 29, 2017. Reuters/Mussa Qawasma

Time and again during our interview, Axelrod attacks Trump for his lack of understanding of foreign policy issues. He attributes the president’s objections to the Iran agreement as being motivated only by local politics. “There is more support than not in this country and in the Jewish community to the agreement,” Axelrod notes. “Trump didn’t do well with Jewish voters, but he did have the support of [billionaire and Republican megadonor] Sheldon Adelson and a faction within the community that strongly supports the actions he took [concerning the deal] – and I think that was one of the things he was responding to.”

‘A confusing year’

Asked if he could find any foreign policy doctrine laid out during Trump’s speech on Monday, Axelrod highlights the section where he discussed “rival powers” Russia and China. The “irony” of Trump’s speech, he says, is that “the centerpiece of it was his tough language about China and Russia, but his withdrawal from the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] – and in general from the world stage – has created an enormous opening for China and Russia, particularly China.

“And in terms of dealing with Russia, it has been a year of mixed signals,” Axelrod adds. “On the one hand Congress passes sanctions, and on the other the president doesn’t impose them. His ambiguous approach to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has sent mixed signals, and meanwhile Russia is emboldened to interfere in democracies and continues to destabilize the Western coalition.”

Axelrod sums Trump’s foreign policy up as “largely incoherent,” adding that this incoherence “has been reflected also in the disparity between the things he says and the things people say on his behalf – most notably Secretary of State [Rex Tillerson], whose comments on issues like North Korea” were “immediately undercut by the president himself.”

It has been “a confusing year” in American foreign policy, Axelrod says, adding that the confusion arose “from the president himself.”

President Barack Obama walking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving in Israel. March 20, 2013Avi Ohayan / GPO
Don’t know much about history…

A year after Obama left the White House, and almost seven years after he himself quit his position in the administration, Axelrod is still involved in politics and is considered one of the country’s top strategists and political analysts.

After playing a key role in Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, Axelrod established the nonpartisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, where he still serves as director. Around the same time, he joined NBC News and MSNBC as a senior political analyst, moving in 2015 to CNN, where he regularly expresses his views on Trump – whom he says resembles Netanyahu in many ways, none of them complimentary to either leader.

“Netanyahu is a much more experienced politician. He is a much more sophisticated student of history – which in some ways makes him more troubling, because he knows exactly what he is doing,” Axelrod notes. “Trump exploited division in a similar way to how Netanyahu exploited division for his own political benefit. They share an instinct for how to do that.

“But I don’t think Trump has any sense of history,” Axelrod continues. “He has a kind of disregard for democratic institutions, the media, the courts, the legislative process – even his own legislative branch. By his own admission, he never read a biography of any president. I don’t think he reads at all; I don’t think he reads history. He doesn’t have [an] appreciation for what the project of democracy is all about. I think Netanyahu does, so in that sense he is a much more sophisticated practitioner of the politics of division.”

But it’s not only the division, says Axelrod, who sees a real risk to the democratic natures of both countries under their present leaders. “The foundation of any democracy is the public faith in its institutions. And if the public faith in it erodes, the democracy is weakened,” he warns. “If on a daily basis leaders are delivering hammer blows to the institutions of democracy, there are long-term consequences for that. That’s my concern for Israel as well: Democracies require fidelity to the rule of law and an understanding that democratic institutions must play their role – and I would include a free media in that.”

We conclude the interview by discussing the concerns of the American-Jewish community over the rise of white nationalism and anti-Semitism that followed Trump’s election victory, plus his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“I’m a son of an immigrant from Eastern Europe who fled the pogroms and fled religious prosecution and tyranny to come to a country where his parents believed they could practice their faith freely and where they would be embraced,” Axelrod says. “So this embrace by the president of the anti-immigrant mantra, his coddling of these neo-fascist, ‘alt-right’ forces is offensive and deeply concerning to me and certainly to many of the Jews I know here.

“There are intimations in some of the rhetoric you hear: The marchers in Charlottesville [during a notorious rally there in August] were chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and yet [Trump] had a hard time denouncing them and was forced to do it and did it half-heartedly. That appalled me: The president of the United States has to stand up against hate – and I don’t think anybody feels that better than the Jews, who understand the danger of leaders who don’t do that.”

You Might also Like
read more:


Democrats wary of House colleague’s effort to impeach Trump — 58 Democrats voting to move ahead

December 7, 2017


US President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington on Wednesday. (AFP)

WASHINGTON: Democratic lawmakers expressed serious reservations Wednesday about a liberal colleague’s push for a House vote on impeaching President Donald Trump, saying it is premature to act before special counsel Robert Mueller’s team completes its investigation into Russian election meddling.

Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, said he will present articles of impeachment under a rule that requires the House to vote on the issue within two days. His new eight-page resolution accuses Trump of “high misdemeanors,” citing “harm to American society to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.”
The effort is certain to lose, and Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told Democrats behind the scenes Wednesday that they will vote to table Green’s resolution, according to a Democratic aide who was not authorized to publicly discuss the conversations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, said Democratic lawmakers cannot allow themselves to be drawn into a process “that’s not thoughtful or complete or might not even be the conclusion we ought to draw.”
“We ought to let Mr. Mueller complete his full investigation rather than engage in what would essentially be a public relations stunt,” Kildee said. “This is a serious thing. It ought not to be done on a whim.”
Green said on the House floor that he planned to take the road less traveled in seeking Trump’s impeachment. He is convinced it is a road worth traveling, but he said, “I ask that no one take this journey with me.”
If he follows the proper procedures, Republicans will hold a vote on tabling — in effect, killing — the proposal during the House’s first series of votes on Wednesday, said a GOP leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a decision by party leaders.
Green’s effort is certain to be opposed by all Republicans in the GOP-majority House.
Pelosi has said any impeachment drive should wait until there’s evidence of an impeachable offense. Another problem for Democrats is that opposing Green’s resolution puts them at risk of angering the party’s rabidly anti-Trump voters. Some Democrats have tried talking Green out of his plan. They did the same in October, when he proposed a similar resolution but never demanded a vote on it.
Green’s impeachment articles cite incidents including Trump’s defense of protesters after a rally of white supremacists at this year’s riot and deadly car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia; his recent sharing of hateful, anti-Muslim videos posted online by a fringe British extremist group; his efforts to ban Muslim immigrants; and his opposition to letting transgender people serve in the military.
Image may contain: 1 person, closeup
House rejects Trump impeachment resolution after Dem Rep. Al Green forces vote
By Alex Pappas | Fox News
House votes overwhelmingly to table impeachment measure
Rep. Al Green’s resolution is killed

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to impeach President Trump after a liberal Texas congressman forced a vote on his effort.

Democratic Rep. Al Green, who has repeatedly called for the president’s removal, introduced two articles of impeachment against Trump on Wednesday.

Image result for Rep. Al Green, photos

Democratic Rep. Al Green

But lawmakers immediately voted to effectively kill his resolution, with 364 voting to table it and 58 Democrats voting to move ahead.

In a dramatic speech on the floor ahead of the vote, Green called Trump “unfit” for office and accused him of “high misdemeanors.”

The symbolic vote had been expected to fail in the Republican-controlled House. It put some lawmakers in competitive districts in a tough spot by forcing them on the record about impeachment.

Lawmakers did not actually vote on the actual articles of impeachment, but on a procedural measure that would have led to a vote on them.

“As I have said before, this is not about Democrats, it is about democracy,” Green wrote in a memo to his colleagues. “It is not about Republicans, it is about the fate of our Republic. May everyone vote their conscience knowing that history will judge us all.”

Green has discussed his intention to impeach Trump since last spring. In October, Green filed impeachment articles that nearly forced a vote — until House Democratic leaders persuaded him to abandon the effort.

At the time, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called the effort “pathetic.”


In his memo to lawmakers, Green didn’t allege “obstruction of justice” or reference the ongoing investigation into the 2016 presidential campaign’s connection with Russia.

Instead, Green highlighted Trump’s supposed association with “White Nationalism, Neo-Nazism and Hate,” as well as “Inciting Hatred and Hostility,” as offenses worthy of impeachment.

“Friends, whether we like it or not, we now have a bigot in the White House who incites hatred and hostility,” Green wrote in a letter.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has insisted that any impeachment effort should be put on hold until there is evidence of an impeachable offense.

Fox News’ Mike Emanuel and Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Alex Pappas is a politics reporter at him on Twitter at @AlexPappas.

Why Trump thinks he can win on race

August 18, 2017

BBC News

    • 18 August 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., August 15, 2017REUTERS

On Wednesday night the talk of Washington was whether Steve Bannon, thanks to his candid interview with Robert Kuttner, the co-founder of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, had ensured his own dismissal as a senior presidential adviser.

On Thursday morning it became readily apparent that, whether or not Mr Bannon remains, Bannonism – if that’s what it can properly be called – is firmly entrenched in the White House.

Donald Trump, in a series of tweets, bashed his Republican opponents and the media and defended Confederate Civil War monuments – the cause for which white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched last weekend.

The president appears to be forcing exactly the kind of fight with progressive groups that Mr Bannon, in his interview, said he welcomed.

“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” Mr Bannon said. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, in April at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

On Tuesday and again on Thursday the president made a decided effort to shift the debate from one about the acceptability of white nationalism – a gentle way of describing the racists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners who marched with torches and fought with counter-demonstrators last weekend – and onto more stable footing.

A recent Marist poll shows that a majority of Americans support (62%) allowing “statues honouring the leaders of the Confederacy” to “remain as historical symbols”.

Image captionBannon may be out of favour but not his ideology

While the survey question was a bit loaded (the other option was to remove them “because they are offensive to some people”), the bottom line is clear.

While Americans overwhelming reject racism and white supremacists, a debate over weather-worn statues cuts much more in Mr Trump’s favour.

Liberals will point out that the “historical” nature of the statues includes that they were largely erected in the early 20th Century, when southern states were codifying government-sanctioned segregation; that some of these “beautiful” statues, in Mr Trump’s words, are accompanied by exceedingly racist text; and that local governments, reflecting the will of their residents, are the ones opting to remove the statues.

That is all well and good, but if that debate also means Democrats abandon bread-and-butter economic issues, Mr Bannon’s side will welcome the exchange.

More than an issue of race, Mr Trump set up his defence of the statues as an attempt to protect a way of life under attack.

“You are changing history and culture,” the president said on Tuesday.

And in his tweet on Thursday: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.”

With his “ripped apart” imagery, Mr Trump is playing into the anxiety of Americans – explicitly about the anxiety over cultural change, but those sentiments go hand-in-hand with the financial uncertainty and upheaval that has wracked the nation since the Great Recession of 2008.

That was a central theme of Mr Trump’s winning presidential campaign, an appeal to lower-middle- and middle-class voters who, even if they weren’t personally devastated by the economic freefall and slow rebound over the preceding eight years, could see the chasm from where they stood.

“These are men and women who are, in the main, still working, still attending church, still members of functioning families, but who often live in communities where neighbours, relatives, friends and children have been caught up in disordered lives,” was how New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall describes them.

“The worry that this disorder has become contagious – that decent working or middle class lives can unravel quickly – stalks many voters, particularly in communities where jobs, industries and a whole way of life have slowly receded, the culminating effect of which can feel like a sudden blow.”

Mr Trump railed against change – a return to when America was “great”. And the statue debate, as he’s constructing it, snugly fits that theme.

In his interview, Mr Bannon dismissed what he called “ethnonationalists” as a “collection of clowns”, but that view seems more an attempt to put his liberal interviewer at ease.

Elsewhere, Mr Bannon has boasted that Breitbart, the publication he used to head, was a “platform for the alt-right” – the anodyne term for the collection of white nationalist groups that have seen a resurgence in power and numbers as Mr Trump campaign gathered strength.

Mr Bannon needs nationalists of all stripes – white, economic, even left-leaning populists and anti-trade liberals like Kuttner – for the new political order he hopes to build that will be willing to wage an economic war against China.

Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother: ‘They tried to kill my child to shut her up’

“To me the economic war with China is everything,” Mr Bannon said. “And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”

Standing between himself and a successful prosecution of this showdown are global elites, including establishment politicians, the mainstream media, financial conglomerates and even Trump administration officials like Goldman Sachs executive turned White House economic advisor Gary Cohn.

If these themes sound familiar, it’s because they were interwoven into Mr Trump’s presidential campaign, particularly after Mr Bannon joined the team in August 2016. They were also a central focus of Mr Trump’s combative inaugural address in January.

If one squints the right way, all of Mr Trump’s recent actions can be seen as part of this overarching strategy. There’s the non-stop battles with the “fake news” mainstream press. The seemingly unnecessary fights with members of his own party, including Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. And the recent announced administration probe of Chinese intellectual property practices, with promises of more trade actions to come.

Squint another way, of course, and Mr Trump’s strategy devolves into the fits and starts of a chief executive who reacts to perceived slights and counter-punches whenever he feels disparaged. The embrace of the Confederate statues is a response to liberal criticism of his handling of the Charlottesville unrest. The feuds with Republicans are because they won’t do his bidding. The media-bashing is because reporters aren’t treating him with appropriate respect.

What Trump said versus what I saw – by the BBC’s Joel Gunter

“I think the president enjoys a scrap with the press,” says Ron Christie, a former adviser to President George W Bush. “I think he believes this is about him and the press and how he’s going to beat the press. What he doesn’t recognise is that the importance of being the president of the United States is to unify the country, to bring people together and to heal divisive wounds.”

As Nancy Cook and Josh Dawsey write in Politico, Mr Trump’s behaviour can be boiled down to a collection of anger triggers.

“White House officials and informal advisers say the triggers for his temper are if he thinks someone is lying to him, if he’s caught by surprise, if someone criticises him, or if someone stops him from trying to do something or seeks to control him,” they write.

If Mr Trump’s actions are part of a larger strategy, and not a fit of pique, there is also the question of whether it’s correct to attribute this to Mr Bannon at all.

While he appears more than willing to take credit for the strategy, the larger themes of the Trump “movement” – border security, aggressive trade protectionism, immigration reform and a certain kind of cultural nostalgia – were well in place before his arrival, as Mr Trump himself likes to point out.

Mr Bannon may have given ideological focus to what was a flailing Trump campaign last August, but the raw material was all Trump’s. And this week – as always – the man at the lectern, the man with his finger on the Twitter trigger, is the president.

The “Make America Great Again” slogan isn’t Bannonism. It’s Trumpism. But whatever you call it, that strain of politics is woven into the fabric of this presidency.



The Poison of Identity Politics

August 16, 2017

The return of white nationalism is part of a deeper ailment.

Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions near Emancipation Park (Formerly ''Lee Park'') in downtown Charlottesville, Va.
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions near Emancipation Park (Formerly ”Lee Park”) in downtown Charlottesville, Va. PHOTO: ALBIN LOHR-JONES/ZUMA PRESS

As ever in this age of Donald Trump, politicians and journalists are reducing the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday to a debate over Mr. Trump’s words and intentions. That’s a mistake no matter what you think of the President, because the larger poison driving events like those in Virginia is identity politics and it won’t go away when Mr. Trump inevitably does.

The particular pathology on display in Virginia was the white nationalist movement led today by the likes of Richard Spencer, David Duke and Brad Griffin. They alone are to blame for the violence that occurred when one of their own drove a car into peaceful protesters, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.

The Spencer crowd courts publicity and protests, and they chose the progressive university town of Charlottesville with malice aforethought. They used the unsubtle Ku Klux Klan symbolism of torches in a Friday night march, and they seek to appear as political martyrs as a way to recruit more alienated young white men.

Political conservatives even more than liberals need to renounce these racist impulses, and the good news is that this is happening. The driver has been charged with murder under Virginia law, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened a federal civil-rights investigation and issued a statement condemning the violence: “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.” Many prominent conservatives also denounced the white-nationalist movement.

Mr. Trump was widely criticized for his initial statement Saturday afternoon that condemned the hatred “on many sides” but failed to single out the white nationalists. Notably, David Duke and his allies read Mr. Trump’s statement as attacking them and criticized the President for doing so.

The White House nonetheless issued a statement Sunday saying Mr. Trump “includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups” in his condemnation. As so often with Mr. Trump, his original statement missed an opportunity to speak like a unifying political leader.

Yet the focus on Mr. Trump is also a cop-out because it lets everyone duck the deeper and growing problem of identity politics on the right and left. The politics of white supremacy was a poison on the right for many decades, but the civil-rights movement rose to overcome it, and it finally did so in the mid-1960s with Martin Luther King Jr. ’s language of equal opportunity and color-blind justice.

That principle has since been abandoned, however, in favor of a new identity politics that again seeks to divide Americans by race, ethnicity, gender and even religion. “Diversity” is now the all-purpose justification for these divisions, and the irony is that America is more diverse and tolerant than ever.

The problem is that the identity obsessives want to boil down everything in American life to these categories. In practice this means allocating political power, contracts, jobs and now even salaries in the private economy based on the politics of skin color or gender rather than merit or performance. Down this road lies crude political tribalism, and James Damore’s recent Google dissent is best understood as a cri de coeur that we should aspire to something better. Yet he lost his job merely for raising the issue.

A politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways on the right and left. The extremists were on the right in Charlottesville, but there have been examples on the left in Berkeley, Oakland and numerous college campuses. When Democratic politicians can’t even say “all lives matter” without being denounced as bigots, American politics has a problem.

Mr. Trump didn’t create this identity obsession even if as a candidate he did try to exploit it. He is more symptom than cause, though as President he now has a particular obligation to renounce it. So do other politicians. Yet the only mission of nearly every Democrat we observed on the weekend was to use the “white supremacist” cudgel against Mr. Trump—as if that is the end of the story.

It isn’t, and it won’t be unless we confront this underlying politics of division. Not long ago we were rereading Justice Clarence Thomas’s prophetic opinion in Holder v. Hall, a 1994 Supreme Court ruling on dividing voting districts by race.

“As a practical political matter,” he wrote, “our drive to segregate political districts by race can only serve to deepen racial divisions by destroying any need for voters or candidates to build bridges between racial groups or to form voting coalitions.” Writ large, Justice Thomas was warning that identity politics can destroy democratic trust and consent.

Appeared in the August 14, 2017, print edition.