All the time I was watching the young white fascists rioting in Charlottesville, I kept thinking, Those losers. I probably said it aloud a few times. This is a pretty easy conclusion to draw about people who have traveled some distance to wear body armor and yell slogans borrowed from failed ethno-nationalisms of the past (“Blood and soil”) and beat clubs against shields painted with variations on the swastika or the imperial German or Russian eagle—either as a substitute or in preparation for using those clubs on other people’s heads, ostensibly to protest the city’s removal of the statue of a dead general who some 150 years before led an uprising against the republic and was defeated. The statue dates only from 1924.
There isn’t much to be said for an ideology whose essentials are the greatness of white Christians and their victimization by black and brown people, Muslims, Jews, Marxists, liberals, and ungrateful women—not an ideology so much as a permanent attitude of self-aggrandizement and self-pity. Terrible things were done in the name of Communism, but at least Communism promised the elevation of working people and the withering away of the state. Fascism’s future is a nation—more ambitiously, a world—whose offending populations have been crushed back into servitude or else exterminated. The Nazis in Charlottesville weren’t even promising that the trains would run on time. (They had almost been late to the earlier rally in July.) They were promising that white folks would be great again. Of course, the current president came to office by making the same promise about America.
This hypertrophied ethnic solidarity might make perverse, atavistic sense in Europe, where ethnos meant something, where you could look at a map and say the English live here and the Irish here, and here are the French and the Italians (though prior to 1871 it wouldn’t have been Italians but Tuscans, Lombards, and Neopolitans). You’ve got your Germans here, your Slovaks here, and over there are your Slovenians, like the president’s beautiful, blank wife. It makes no sense in the United States. Remember the melting pot? What could Mike Cernovich have in common with the Waspy Richard Spencer? By virtue of his name alone, the organizer of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, Jason Kessler, had he been born in Hitler’s Germany, would have been vetted for a Jewish grandparent. (In the case of Stephen Miller, the Trump administration’s point person for immigration policy, no vetting would have been necessary: He or his family was known to be Jewish.)
The glory of America is that it offered the sweepings of all those European nations and less-than-nations membership in a new collectivity, one based not on blood but on ideas of liberty and equality. The enduring shame of America is, first, that this collectivity was closed to persons of African, Asian, and Native American descent. The second shame is that many of those admitted rejected the country’s founding ideas and settled for cruddy old ethnicity—embraced ethnicity, clung to it. Only this time it was the counterfeit ethnicity of whiteness, this thing that had never existed before the seventeenth century: To understand how counterfeit, consider that at different times Irish, Italians, and Slavs were excluded from it. To some arbiters of whiteness—for instance, the ones who gathered in Charlottesville—Jews still are excluded (one of the marchers—he had the chubby cuteness of Paul Dano playing the young Brian Wilson—calmly stated his objectives as defending white Christian values and the free market, and killing Jews.)
Of course, few people want to admit they’re racist, and for a long time the nation as a whole denied racism even existed—except, paradoxically, among its traditional victims. Hardly had some African Americans begun protesting police killings of people of color by calling out “Black lives matter!” than some anxious European Americans had come up with the scolding counter-chant, “All lives matter!” Probably some of the folks at the “Unite the Right” rally chanted it.
Curiously, many of them seemed to think of themselves as losers. How else to interpret their version of “Black lives matter”? The bros shouting “You [or “Jews”] will not replace us” have already been replaced. Proximally, by machines (or algorithms), actually by an economic system that in the process of extracting every last ounce of profit from every available “resource,” turns the world and its creatures into pulp. One of the meanings of white privilege was that boys like the boys in Charlottesville could pretend this was something that only happened to other people, who somehow deserved it. Now they understand it can happen—has happened—to them, but can’t move beyond the idea that this is the fault of Jews or black or brown folks or women. It’s harder to hate a machine and even harder to hate the men who bought it with the express purpose of getting rid of your sorry ass, especially if those men look like your daddy. It’s harder still to hate the system that built the machines, hiring workers who were unlikely to balk even if they knew that those machines would take away the jobs of other workers; that rewarded the men who bought the machines with executive bonuses and the corporations for which they worked with higher stock prices, some of that stock doubtless being held by workers’ pension funds. It’s hard to hate a system as impersonal and featureless as nitrogen, and as pervasive, and that implicates white supremacists and progressives, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and probably Richard Spencer, who has a Facebook account and—judging from the amount of air travel he does to make all those speaking gigs—a credit card.
For decades now I’ve been racking my brain as to why, faced with declining wages and joblessness, outsourcing and capital flight, so many Americans choose the solutions of the right over the solutions of the left—not just the solutions but the diagnoses, which come down to blood over class. But of course it’s obvious: Class only says what you do; blood says who you are.