Antifa, Nazism and the opportunistic politics that divide us
Americans are more united than ever on issues of race and free speech.
So why the hell are we so divided?
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist terror attack on anti-white supremacist protesters, the vast majority of Americans agreed on the following propositions: white supremacism is evil; neo-Nazism is evil; violence against peaceful protesters is evil, whether from left to right or vice versa.
Yet here we are, two weeks after the event, and the heat has not cooled.
That’s not thanks to serious disagreements among Americans. It’s thanks to political opportunism on all sides.
It’s easy to blame President Donald Trump for that reaction; his response to the Charlottesville attack was indeed deeply disturbing. It was disturbing for the president to initially blame “both sides” for the event, as though those counterprotesting white supremacism were moral equals of those protesting in its favor. It was more disturbing for the president to say there were “very fine people” at the neo-Nazi tiki torch march, and to add that he had no idea what the “alt-right” was.
Trump’s bizarre, horrifying response to the Charlottesville attacks would have justified criticism of him. I’ve been personally pointing out the president’s stubborn and unjustifiable unwillingness to condemn the alt-right for well over a year (I was the alt-right’s top journalistic target in 2016 on Twitter, according to the Anti-Defamation League). Such critiques would have been useful and welcome.
Instead, the mainstream left has politicized the situation through two particular strategies: first, labeling conservatives more broadly as neo-Nazi sympathizers; second, justifying violence from communist/anarchist antifa members.
The first strategy is old hat by now on the left. On college campuses, conservatives are regularly labeled beneficiaries of “white privilege” who merely seek to uphold their supremacy; anodyne political candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have been hit with charges of racism from the left. Democrats routinely dog Republicans with the myth of the “Southern switch” — the notion that the Republicans and Democrats changed positions on civil rights after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, leading to Republicans winning the South. (For the record, that theory is eminently untrue, and has been repeatedly debunked by election analysts ranging from Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics to Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin and Richard Johnston of theUniversity of Pennsylvania.)
But that false conflation found a new outlet for the left in support for antifa (anti-fascism). Antifa is a violent group that has attacked protesters in Sacramento, Berkeley, Dallas, Boston and Charlottesville; it’s dedicated to the proposition that those it labels fascists must be fought physically. It’s not anti-fascist so much as anti-right-wing — it shut down a parade in Portland last year because Republican Party members were scheduled to march in that parade. Antifa’s violence in Boston two weeks after Charlottesville wasn’t directed at Nazis or Nazi sympathizers, but at police officers and normal free-speech advocates.
Yet many on the left have justified their behavior as a necessary counter to the white supremacists and alt-righters. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) justified the violence by appealing to the evils of the neo-Nazis. Professor N.D.B. Connolly of Johns Hopkins University wrote in the pages of The Washington Post that the time for nonviolence had ended — that it was time to “throw rocks.” Dartmouth University historian Mark Bray defended antifa by stating that the group makes an “ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it’s too late.”
This is appalling stuff unless the Nazis are actually getting violent. Words aren’t violence. A free society relies on that distinction to function properly — as Max Weber stated, the purpose of civilization is to hand over the role of protection of rights to a state that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Breaking that pact destroys the social fabric.
Now, most liberals — as opposed to leftists — don’t support antifa. Even Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) denounced antifa’s tactics in Berkeley, for example. But in response to some on the left’s defense of antifa and their attempt to broaden the Nazi label to include large swaths of conservatives, too many people on the right have fallen into the trap of defending bad behavior of its own. Instead of disassociating clearly and universally from President Trump’s comments, the right has glommed onto the grain of truth embedded in them — that antifa is violent — in order to shrug at the whole.
The result of all of this: the unanimity that existed regarding racism and violence has been shattered. And all so that political figures can make hay by castigating large groups of people who hate Nazism and violence.
Let’s restore the unanimity. Nazism is bad and unjustifiable. Violence against those who are not acting violently is bad and unjustifiable. That’s not whataboutism. That’s truth.
If we can’t agree on those basic principles, we’re not going to be able to share a country.
BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”