8 New Things About the American Alt Right

By Susan Barnett

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, leader of Repairers of the Breach and the Moral Monday Movement (and an Auburn Senior Fellow) recently wrote,

“The statue of Robert E. Lee for which extremists in Charlottesville were willing to kill, was installed during the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat from New Jersey, after he played “Birth of a Nation” in the White House. 100 years before Donald Trump and the Republican Party courted white nationalists, Wilson used this nation’s bully pulpit to uplift the narrative of white nationalism. Racism is not a partisan or regional issue in America. It is our nation’s original sin.”

Racism in America is by no means new. But when the (seemingly relentless) CNN BREAKING NEWS icon again popped up on my cell phone, my eyes popped out of my head as I read:

In a remarkable news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, President Donald Trump blamed the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday on both sides of the conflict, equating the white supremacists on one side with the “alt-left” on the other side.

“I think there is blame on both sides,” he said.

He added: “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.”

The President of the United States of America made a moral equivalency the likes of which we’ve never seen by an American president in our lifetime. Denouncements of racism flew from all corners — even from the conservative wing of his own party (though very few called out the president.)

I’ve been thinking about why the current, very public displays of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and White Christian Nationalism feel different. I’ve come up with eight observations about what feels “new” (and #8 is not meant to be funny):

  1.      The Confederate flag is flying alongside the Nazi flag. I wonder how that feels to those folks who see the Confederate flag as a treasured emblem and a merely a sign of “Southern Pride”.
  2.      The hoods are off. These men — many of whom have regular day jobs and families — feel safe showing their faces.
  3.      Alt Right leaders like David Duke and Richard Spencer rejoiced in the president’s response and have been thoroughly emboldened by him.
  4.      This extremist movement of (mostly) young men who are frustrated and angry, lacking hope, and feeling aggrieved would be ISIS candidates under different circumstances.
  5.      The U.S. has a selective definition of terrorism. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more Americans have been killed inside the U.S. by white supremacists than by any other foreign or domestic group combined by a factor of two. Yet we don’t call the murders at the Overland Park, KS Jewish Community Center, the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI, the black Church in Charleston, SC, and Charlottesville, VA this past weekend what it is: terrorism.
  6.      Are we seeing a red line for Free Speech? I fully believe these white supremacists are as protected by the First Amendment as I am. But there’s a line that crosses from talk to terrorism. For those of us who are First Amendment diehards, it feels like we need guidance in a way we’ve not needed before.
  7.      There’s a new level of coordination between and among groups. Christian author, BrianMcLaren (also an Auburn Senior Fellow), was among the clergy who went to Charlottesville to try to provide protection for the counter-demonstrators, and a human barricade against the white Christian nationalists as they entered Emancipation Park. He was struck by just how organized these Nazi, KKK, Alt Right, and other white supremacists were as they poured out of rented vans to march side-by-side, chanting the same Third Reich anti-Semitic slogans, by torchlight.
  8.     Along with stark images of open carry, we also witnessed grown white men decked out in a ridiculous mix of homemade swords, shields, and makeshift helmets. If this weren’t so incredibly horrible, it would look like a Monty Python sketch involving The Ministry of Silly Walks. Manhood has gone awry.

Never in my life would I think I’d find myself quoting Ralph Reed of the far Christian right. The conservative Christian community, which has tragically failed American and global history before, needs to take in Reed’s condemnation on Twitter: “Those who twist the cross of Christ into a swastika exchange his message of love and redemption for one of hatred and evil.”

Yet if conservative Christians — from VP Pence, Reed, the White House Evangelical Council on down — remain unwilling to hold Trump to account for calling those who chant Nazi war slogans “good people”, do they need reminded that they claim to follow a dark-skinned, social justice Jew?

Susan Barnett is a former award-winning network news producer and founder of Cause Communications, a strategic media, communications, and advocacy consultancy for nonprofits working at the nexus of media, faith, and social justice. She works with Auburn’s Senior Fellows.

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