Fascism is a fire in the least celebratory sense of the word. It will eat your home into ash and consume entire cities, swallowing the lives and histories of everyone who lived there. Fire can be contained, but carefully, and must always be monitored. Fire doesn’t go away if you ignore it. Eventually, you must either extinguish it or contain the flames to an extent that it hardly makes a difference.
On August 14, a large group of white supremacist and neo-Nazis marched through the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, with torches chanting Nazi slogans. The “Unite the Right” rally was scheduled for the following day, organized by Jason Kessler, member of the ultra-nationalist Proud Boys group, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. A multitude of alt-right, neo-Nazi, white-supremacist groups were in attendance, including an armed militia. Tensions rose as counter-protestors showed up to express their disgust with the ideas being celebrated. The conflict boiled over when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protestors, injuring nineteen and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
President Trump did not immediately or specifically condemn white supremacy after the events of Charlottesville, opting instead to defend the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. “I think there is blame on both sides…You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. No one wants to say that. I’ll say that right now.” The president went on to express sympathy for those protesting the removal of confederate monuments, and pointed out that “Unite the Right” had a permit and the counter-protestors did not. Our president, famous for his knee-jerk and over-simplistic statements regarding large groups of people, could not bring himself to do the bare minimum and openly condemn white supremacists, the easiest PR move in the books, which would have scored him points from moderate America.
There’s an impulse to point out Trump’s idiotic nature as an explanation for his decision-making, and while it’s true that our president is an unbelievably stupid person, I don’t wish to excuse his statements on Charlottesville by blaming them on his intellect. Trump’s unwillingness to clearly pick a side was a strategic move. The Trump Administration’s base is made up of white supremacists, ultra-nationalists and run-of-the-mill racists of every class level. By implicitly placing the blame on the imagined “alt-left,” the administration is pandering to its base, an increasingly radical, right wing population. The Trump White House endorses, or at the very least is willing to ignore, the spread of fascist ideology.
There are a slew of fun analogies one can make to illustrate how ludicrous and misleading Trump’s “both sides” argument is. If fascism is a fire, do you condemn the aggressive blasts of water used to douse it? In a way, there was aggression on both sides, the water pressure was very high, and the fire was there first. And look, the cancer was bad, yes, but the chemotherapy was very violent, so who’s to say which side was really worse?
You can’t equate fascists and anti-fascists because one side exists solely to stop the other from spreading. Fascism’s end goal is to violently silence all dissenting voices, murder a slew of peoples deemed inferior to their imagined supremacy and establish systems to ensure their permanent control over all aspects of society. The end goal of anti-fascism is, get this, to stop the spread of fascism. They aren’t the same.
Yet I’ve seen the ‘both sides were wrong’ sentiment repeated amongst many in the moderate sphere. Back in January, during the inauguration, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was punched in the face during an interview on the street. The immensely satisfying video of a racist being shut down went viral almost immediately, but a surprisingly large contingency of Americans expressed sympathy for Spencer, arguing that it was wrong to hit him even if he is a Nazi. People are quick to condemn the violence on both sides, but this lumps Nazis, who hate everyone but themselves, and anti-Nazis, who just hate Nazis, into the same category. Violence is, of course, never an ideal scenario, but there are certain realities in America right now that we need to face. The president was put into power by white supremacists and nationalists and members of his administration echo those beliefs. The Trump administration’s refusal to condemn the events in Charlottesville no doubt emboldened leaders of white nationalist groups. The fire is not going to be contained by the federal government so long as it benefits them. Fascism is not going to go away unless we fight it, the Nazis aren’t going to come around to our way of thinking if we’re polite enough towards them and the responsibility is now on us to actively combat fascist modes of thought in our communities. Nazis don’t need protection, the people they want to burn do.
So what do we do? We stop arguing with each other about what the best way to deal with the rise of American fascism is and we focus on fighting the rise of American fascism. I’m not saying take to the streets and start beating Nazis, but we need to show white supremacists that their beliefs aren’t going to be tolerated. We need to shut these people down and make them feel silly, make them feel absurd and lonely in their false identification as a superior being. We need to create a cultural climate where people think twice before goose-stepping out onto a college campus with torches in hand, where white supremacy isn’t seen as a legitimate ideology, but an embarrassing sickness to be avoided at all costs.
As for the matters of free speech and ‘erasing history,’ it should be noted that in Germany, no one is allowed to fly the Nazi flag, and statues of Hitler don’t commemorate the Holocaust. Why should confederate monuments, celebratory of a traitorous movement to preserve the hideous institution of slavery, be displayed publicly? We need to pivot and face our history in order to make a concerted effort to own up to our mistakes and face our past. Confederate flags and monuments belong in museums, not on public display for the purpose of intimidation. Their removal is not erasing history, it’s choosing which parts we’re choosing to celebrate and which parts we need to condemn and remember never to repeat. It’s time for America to grow up and work on its systemic issues.
So no, there are not “many sides” to white supremacy. You are either against it, or you are indifferent to or encouraging of its assent. Let’s stop twiddling our thumbs and debating about the ethics of punching a Nazi while they run over people in broad daylight. The only free speech and rights Nazis care about are their own, and if we allow them to get stronger for the sake of keeping the peace, they are going to bury us. Our personal politics and ideas about exactly what kind of republic we want to be can wait, because the house is burning down, and right now we all need to unite to fight the greater evil. So grab a hose and help put the fire out.