On August 11-12, a rally was organized by white nationalists, white supremacists, and members of the alt-right in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The event morphed into a violent race riot, which culminated in an act of vehicular terrorism is that killed one peaceful counter-protestor and injured dozens. In the aftermath of this tragedy, commentators from across the political spectrum have vocally condemned the emergence of what they claim is Nazism in the United States.
It’s easy — and undoubtedly apt — to label these protestors as Nazis when they perform Sieg Heil salutes, incorporate the swastika into their propaganda posters, and refer to detractors as kikes. But it’s baffling to me that the media and popular discourse continues to uncritically use the term Nazism when discussing a demonstration in Virginia — the capital of the Confederacy — that was sparked in large part by action around Confederate monuments.
When we use a term like “Nazi” that has a foreign origin, we turn these people into “others” that are alien to “real” Americans. Thus, my argument is that labelling the recent phenomenon in the United States as Nazism deflects criticism that can be convincingly made of the hardcore, homegrown racism that sits at the very core of the United States of America. We hardly need to reach across the Atlantic for examples of extremist white nationalism, and it hurts the anti-racist movement when we do so.
Let’s look at the context. The United States, the South, Virginia, and Charlottesville all have rich histories of right-wing white nationalism and white supremacy that began long before Nazism took hold of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan — which has always had a history of Nordicism and anti-Semitism — was established in 1865 and drew inspiration from the Confederate army. This reality is conveniently erased when liberals reduce Richard Spencer and his colleagues to “Nazis” who supposedly draw much of their inspiration from the Third Reich.
I understand the reasoning behind recalling a famous and relatively recent incident of mass atrocity and objective moral evil in the hopes of emphasizing the gravity of the present situation. But beyond superficial symbols and a commitment to white supremacy, the parallels the left is making between Unite the Right protestors and actual Nazis are a bit of a stretch. These individuals are staunchly against government intervention, many are strongly religious, and the purpose of the rally in Charlottesville clearly demonstrates that they are reactionary rather than revolutionary. Moreover, the comparisons between Trump and Hitler are — to put it bluntly — illogical and ridiculous.
Dangerous right-wing extremism has always existed close to home. By proclaiming that these actions are indicative of Nazi resurrection, we erase the unique, dirty, and uncomfortable national heritage of the United States. As a result, the rhetoric set forth by liberals becomes muddled and ineffectual. If the goal is to create a society devoid of discrimination, it’s important that we tackle the root of the problem. Lazily adopting and misapplying an old label will not help the American public understand the real nature of the people involved in the Charlottesville episode.