In the opening lines of his famous poem of 1919 entitled The Second Coming, just as the apocalyptic “Great War” (what today we call World War I) ended, William Butler Yeats wrote the following:
Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
On the night of August 11, far right demonstrators marched with tiki torches from the University of Virginia campus chanting things like “white lives matter” and “you (erroneously reported by media as Jews) will not replace us!”, evoking memories of 1930s Nazi and contemporary Ukrainian Svoboda Party marches but also, marches of the anti-slavery and anti-immigrant Wide Awakes of 1859-60.
Then on Saturday August 12, the main demonstration was held, spinning off a counter demonstration by Antifa which turned violent. Police made no attempt to form a line between the two sides, claiming later that they were undermanned and had orders from superiors not to do so.
It was at that point, during the demonstration that President Trump began tweeting about the demonstation. His first tweet, all but unnoticed by the media but able to teach the demonstrators themselves through their cellphones, was an appeal for calm. Later, after the fatal car attack on an Antifa demonstrator, he condemned both sides.
Trump tacked to the left somewhat on Monday , condemning white supremacy and then back to the right at a press conference in which he condemned violence and extremism on both sides. The media, for its part focused in on Trump’s reaction to the demonstration and whether that reaction was “adequate” or “presidential” more than the demonstration itself.
Both sides, not only in Charlottesville but in previous and subsequent demonstrations, have been acting strategically to mobilize support and escape marginalization.
The Charlottesville brouhaha began with a city council vote in February to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, a move later tied up in court. Confederate memorials from statues to street names to the names of military bases such as Fort Bragg and many others are becoming the subject of symbolic crusades against the right. These memorials were largely erected during and after the Redeemer Period in the South from 1890s to 1930, the time in which Jim Crow was established.
As such, they do function as a,reminder of that period as well as the Civil War itself. Moreover movements against memorials to people guilty of atrocities have not been uncommon on college campuses for some time. Decades ago, for instance, there was a move at the University of Colorado to rename Nichols Hall as White Antelope Cheyenne Hall, because onetime state lieutenant governor David H. Nichols apparently was a participant in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of Native Americans in 1864.
Unlike more substantive issues such as lead-poisoned water or inadequate schools (forced desegregation was largely declared unconstitutional during the Clinton years and public schools have for the most part been in so many urban areas have been re-segregated on their own), renaming buildings and streets and removing Confederate war memorials costs little money,
At the same time, it is sure to provoke a reaction from conservatives. Attacking monuments is thus seen as a strategic way of changing public consciousness. But it is also the kind of issue that the white nationalist right can use to gain both sympathizers and followers.
Disruptions of speeches delivered by representatives of the nation of Israel, such as the heckling of Ambassador Michael Oren in 2010 at University of California Irvine by Muslim Students Union, have been quite common in recent years. As the alt-right emerged in the last few years, its organizers realized that they could exploit similar protests by the left in such a way that the latter would appear in a bad light. Such tactics were displayed at rallies for then candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and at the aborted speech by Milo Yiannopolous at the University of California Berkeley in February 2017 and Charles Murray at Middlebury College in May 2016.
Simply having the talk thwarted by counter demonstrations served to conjure up news and perhaps make pro-free speech advocates subtly more sympathetic to white nationalist views than might otherwise be the case.
This strategy was in evidence in the August 12, 2017 demonstration – and again in Boston and Berkeley on August 26. It proved to be easy for demonstrators on both sides to organize demonstrations very quickly using social media. In Berkeley a new wrinkle in this strategy was when the promoters would cancel, or move, the demonstration. Some protesters inevitably would not get the word and face beatings by counter-demonstrators, giving the latter a black eye in the media.
The result of these strategems on both sides has been to de-marginalize the extremes on both ends of the spectrum. Thus on the Right we see people like Richard Spencer, whose brand of white nationalism.in more normal times would be quite marginal able to get an audience with people whose main connection with nationalism seems to be immigrant phobia or fear of being victimized by political correctness (not always well founded) should they express the wrong views to the wrong co worker at a time when economic precariousness makes employment precarious. Or the wrong fellow student for that matter..
Calls to Facebook or Google or Paypal to ban alt right websites may not have been effective, since geeks on the alt right are busily developing their own counterparts to maintream social media.
And there are signs that a backlash may be developing over removing monuments. None other than Clinton strategist Paul Begala has warned that Democrats may be walking into a trap on this issue. There appears to be less and less of a center to hold as the two sides of the political spectrum become farther and farther apart to the point that extremes from the neo-Nazi right to Antifa on the left, are no longer marginal, the first time since the 1930s or maybe even the 1850s, that this is so.
The prefix “alt-” is something of a euphemism. It should be written instead with the letter X as in “X-treme” sports. The de-marginalization of extremes and their placid acceptance by fast-growing segments of the population should serve as a prophetic warning to the imminent future of America. Yeats may have glimpsed something we in our partisan blindness refuse to acknowledge.
Martin Katchen is an independent scholar, teacher, and researcher living in California. He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly the state of Israel. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney (Australia).