For my August contribution, I wanted to write a Labor Day tribute to the American working class, the strength behind all the wealth this great nation enjoys. But the events in Charlottesville, the sight of hundreds of white supremacists carrying torches and the odd presidential reaction afterward compels me to switch my attention.
What are we to make of all this? Why are young white males parading Nazi-like? Why can’t President Trump state an unequivocal denunciation of white supremacy with a strong, straightforward message?
As I write, there are multiple opinion pieces published addressing these questions and there will be many more by the time you read it. My goal is to offer a few insights into what’s going on because in my view there are hidden messages that must be brought into the light. On Sunday President Trump made a statement condemning the “display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” This statement was an example of false equivalency, that is excusing or explaining one reprehensible act by equating it with a different act. Somehow, in Trump’s mind, protesting neo-Nazis and white supremacists’ actions is equal to committing the actions themselves.
Later in the week he continued the argument, wondering aloud whether taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee, a rebel general who was a traitor to his country, would lead to taking down statues of Washington and Jefferson (“after all, they were slave owners”). Again, this is a false equivalency. Washington and Jefferson are honored as founding fathers and patriots of the United States; Lee led a rebellion against the nation.
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False equivalency is common and dangerous. Last week a Wall Street Journal editorial argued that the Charlottesville events were the inevitable result of “identity politics.” Thus, they equated white supremacists, seeking a return to white rule in America, with the black lives matter movement, seeking equal treatment under the law.
But how can we understand what motivates these torch-carriers? Is it just plain racism? For this I think we need to realize how dominate sports and sports-thinking are in America. Any sports contest is a zero-sum game. That is, something that aids the opponent automatically subtracts from you — a zero balance. This way of thinking pervades popular politics as well, and forms the basis of a Republican Party’s political strategy.
In the 1960’s there was great progress in civil rights for American minorities, and this lead to white resentment in the South. But why? The civil rights struggle was a non-zero- sum game. You do not lose your right to vote when someone gains that right. However, what was at risk was white privilege. White men, and I’m one of them, have always enjoyed positions of advantage, like better education and employment opportunities.
Throughout our nation, especially in the South, resentment against black progress was simmering. Strategists in the Republican Party recognized that white resentment was growing and adopted a race-oriented approach, called the “Southern Strategy.” They built on and encouraged white resentment, turning it into political power.
The Trump presidency is the latest phase of this strategy. In 2008 the nation elected a black man as president. Was this the end of the end of racial politics? Hardly. Led by Donald Trump’s birther movement, much of the Republican Party questioned President Obama’s legitimacy.
And for Trump, it worked. In 2016 the nation elected a Republican president who made no effort to mask his racial and gender prejudices. We now have an empowered white supremacist movement and a president who won’t fight against it.
The neo-Nazi challenge needs to be faced steadily and strongly by all of us. This assignment especially falls to Republicans because that party’s approach to racial politics spawned the current situation. Republicans need to proclaim loudly and repeatedly that equal rights under the law are not a loss for anyone. They also need to avoid falsely equating those who would inflame racial hatred with those who are fighting against that movement.
There is real danger here. We cannot simply be passive. If we do, these very real threats, including the absence of steady and thoughtful leadership in the White House, will continue to plague our nation.
George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager, and is a member of The Olympian’s 2017 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org