Chait: White supremacy and the discourse of far left panic

Jonathan Chait published an interesting piece in New York magazine yesterday arguing that the far left is shouting “white supremacy!” in order to create a kind of stampede, a panic which reduces the political debate to Manichaean simplicity. You are either for Antifa on the far left or you are helping the KKK.

The term “white supremacist” has described a different group of people than standard Republicanism. It meant a member of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, or some other similar organization that argued explicitly for white power. News articles linking mainstream politicians to white supremacists might mention some secret link between the two — such as the revelation that Representative Steve Scalise had given a speech to a white-supremacist organization — but they were understood to be different movements. Every mention of white supremacists that appeared in the New York Times in the 12 months before Trump’s candidacy referred either to American politicians before the civil-rights era, or to explicit advocates of white power, such as those Scalise was discovered to have met with (but not Scalise himself)…

All of a sudden, the term is being attached to Trump. The president’s “ideology is white supremacy,” writes Coates.

It’s no accident that Ta-Nehisi Coates comes up in this discussion. He is the touchstone of this argument, the person making it intellectually respectable to label Trump and potentially all Republicans white supremacists. But as Chait points out, this is less about revealing truth than it is about conflating distinct categories to instill panic and suggest it’s time to abandon outdated notions like free speech:

The method here is to panic liberals into abandoning liberalism. In normal times, liberals accept the right of even the most heinous opponents to engage in peaceful political expression, because giving either the government or violent street fighters the right to silence opponents of the left is a power that could just as easily be turned against the left itself. But if Trump is not merely a potential authoritarian but an actual one, and the appearance of a handful of Nazis (a demonstration in Charlottesville drawing upon supporters across the country mustered only a few hundred) is the onset of Weimar Germany, then liberalism seems like an insufficient response.

The equation of Trump with Hitler is a way of using history that treats American democracy as a failed experiment. All its procedural niceties, like freedom of speech even for those with the most heinous beliefs, are suddenly unaffordable luxuries.

Chait quotes an article that appeared in Jacobin:

There is a side that asserts our common humanity and fights fascism, racism, and hate. It was represented in Charlottesville by the leftist groups who took to the streets to confront the far right. The other side is the one that took innocent lives on those same streets. The stakes are high. We have to choose.

The far left is essentially adopting the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric they have denounced for years and reframing it as an existential battle between the KKK and Antifa. I could swear the left was eager to denounce this sort of thinking up to about nine months ago. Forcing people to align with the extremists doesn’t make them extremists but it does empower the extremists.

Panic is dangerous because it is so contagious. Antifa is growing and free speech is under threat from the far left in many places. As Chait correctly points out, there’s no limiting principle here. Once political violence and extremism are normalized, there’s no predicting what happens next. The only way to stop it is to return to recognizing that not everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is a white supremacist. There are a lot more reasonable Americans on both sides of the aisle than there are violent extremists on either side.