In these dystopian times, tempers are growing short with those who prefer to view the United States as a largely benevolent place, save for a few fringe elements with bad intentions. Earlier this week, The New York Times got a good taste of that sentiment when editors of its podcast, “The Daily,” posted an episode under the boneheaded headline, “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, and How We Missed It,” which they tweeted with a link to the episode.
The splash-back was immediate. African American writers were like, who do you mean by “we”? After all, black writers in America are pretty hip to all the anti-black hate out there. (“We = Y’all,” tweeted The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, who is black.) For good reason, Cobb and other black writers didn’t see the white supremacist Dylann Roof’s 2015 massacre of black churchgoers, or the murder of two black shoppers in a Kentucky Kroger’s store last month, as one-offs. These are all of a piece with the practice of murders by white supremacists that have plagued American society for generations. And African American writers have been sounding the alarm on the rise of white supremacy’s latest iterations as “alt right” and “white nationalist.”
Other opprobria were expressed by journalists, such as yours truly, who devote much of our journalistic careers to chronicling the right. (I currently edit Right Wing Watch, which has existed for more than a decade.) A handful of us have done this work for decades, only to find ourselves often written out of the presumably politer company of mainstream media types by whom we often found ourselves regarded as fringers—as fringe as those hoity-toity editors presumed the movements we covered to be.
Surprise! What was deemed “fringe” in 1995 or 2005 is now at the heart of power. And a bunch of people not included in that “we” are here to say, “We told ya so.”
By the following day after “The Daily” tweet, the headline on the post was changed: “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism, and How U.S. Law Enforcement Missed It.” Indeed, that is the point of the fine Times Magazine piece by Janet Reitman, on which that particular episode of “The Daily” is based.
ON AUGUST 12, 2017, I caught a ride to Charlottesville, Virginia, with a fellow journalist who covers right-wing movements. “You know,” she said, “things could get really hairy today.”
“I figured as much,” I replied.
The thousands of law-enforcement personnel present on the scene would seem to have spoken to that prediction. As we entered the town by car, we drove past throngs of people armed with everything from long guns to batons. Before the rally, dubbed Unite the Right, that drew hundreds of people to town even got underway, state police shut it down as a threat to public safety. They then stood by as melees erupted all over town, nearly all of them perpetrated by right-wing actors. They did so even after James Fields, Jr., drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, and maiming dozens of others.
Still, Reitman reported, the naming of far-right violence as “domestic terrorism” is politically fraught, even though right-wing violence accounts for greater numbers of deaths than that perpetrated by radicalized Muslims, whose movements are carefully monitored by multiple law enforcement agencies.
It’s not just neglect of the obvious threat posed by radicalized white supremacists that prompts such reticence; it’s the active demonization by elected officials of any who would shine a light on that threat. Earlier this week, for example, Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, said in a congressional hearing that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which documents the activities of the violent far-right, “has really stirred up more hatethan any other group that I’ve known.” Gohmert took particular issue with the fact that Google had named SPLC a “trusted flagger” of dangerous content on its YouTube platform.
FOR HER TIMES MAGAZINE PIECE, Reitman interviewed New America fellow P.W. Singer, a national security expert, who said that in the early days of the Trump administration, he me with “senior administration officials” to advise them on the new counterterrorism strategy they hoped to employ. From Reitman’s piece:
“They only wanted to talk about Muslim extremism,” he says. But even before the Trump administration, he says, “we willingly turned the other way on white supremacy because there were real political costs to talking about white supremacy.”
This should not come as a surprise. In fact, it is only surprising if you have a particular idea of what America is, and the ample evidence of a right-wing threat to domestic security offers more cognitive dissonance than you can countenance.
The truth is that the Republican Party is in an alliance of sorts with right-wing extremists, and too many mainstream journalists and good liberals have failed to accept that fact, or the seriousness of the threat posed by those extremists. Add to that the ways in which the GOP has courted the votes of law enforcement officers by demonizing activists who oppose white supremacy, and you have a recipe for the kind of violence we see today. “They have fostered the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America,” Trump said in an August 2016 speech.
Without a doubt, the United States of America has its finer points, not least of them a Constitution that, while written to protect white supremacy and white patriarchy, took a shape that allows for its reform on those points and others. But the fact remains that the U.S. was founded on an economic system dependent on white supremacy, and there are many who wish to see that system continued. America may indeed be a “melting pot,” but this, too—this white supremacist ideal—is America.
Now, after three consecutive years of being jeered at as “Lügenpresse” by supporters of President Donald J. Trump, and being designated the “enemy of the people” by the president himself, mainstream white journalists are beginning to get it.
The question remains: Will law enforcement catch up?