The murder in Charlottesville was committed by a monster. The occasion was a rally organized by white supremacists. Any society will have its quantum of violent thugs and obnoxious degenerates. A healthy society would imprison and perhaps (depending on how you feel about the death penalty) execute the former, and treat the latter with icy indifference and contempt for as long as they stayed within the law, pouncing on them with maximal punishments the moment they strayed from legality. But we are not a healthy society, and therefore we are tearing ourselves apart.
One could start with President Trump, who refused explicitly to condemn white supremacists on the day of the murder. He could have condemned the violence of leftist and white supremacist rioters—but he could have made it clear at the same time that he believed white supremacy was evil.
But he didn’t, because he is obdurate. He saw that his political enemies were calling for a condemnation and, in his defiance and arrogance, had to show them that they weren’t going to write his scripts. This approach has worked for him in the past. His willingness to defy the political class on both style and substance (and take the resulting media criticism, even from his own nominal partisan allies) allowed him to win a presidential election despite not having the endorsement of four of the five living former Republican presidential nominees. He has reason to think that his instincts are pretty good.
But this time it would have been in his political interest to issue the obvious condemnation of an ideology that is obviously evil. Trump won the presidency because millions and millions of people who had voted for Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. These people weren’t Nazis when they voted for Obama, and they haven’t become Nazis in the years since. Condemning white supremacy would have helped Trump rather than hurt him with these voters, as with most of the rest of America.
Most importantly, none of Trump’s political calculations or worries about seeming weak should have mattered in the first place. If Trump had asked himself the simple question, “What is the right thing to do here?” the answer would have been obvious. He doesn’t seem to have asked that question, this time or ever—and expecting him to do so makes about as much sense as expecting a hippopotamus to fly south for the winter.
It isn’t just Trump we should be worried about. The rally seems to have been organized by a David Duke wannabe named Richard Spencer. His band of losers and marginal ideologues could only grow by unearned attention and by attaching itself to a wider, more popular cause.
Spencer got attention through mainstream media profiles that glamorized him with their photos. The text of those profiles was superficially critical; it also made him seem edgy. If Spencer had a million dollars, he could not have bought the publicity that the Washington Post gave him for free.
Spencer’s following will grow only if it successfully becomes a parasite on a larger host. David Duke tried to do that with Reaganism in the 1980s and 1990s, and he was met with complete repudiation by the elected right. He still managed to win a state legislature seat and finish second in a race for governor. Spencer hasn’t gotten that far yet, but he and his confederates (so to speak) are parasites. They will morally and politically destroy any cause with which they are associated. Spencer will be contained only if the media give him coverage in proportion to his meager following, and if those who he claims are his allies explain why he is a cancer.
Sometimes, doing the right thing is difficult or complicated. Sometimes it isn’t. It’s never the right thing to glamorize white supremacists. It’s never the right thing to avoid explaining that white supremacy is evil. It’s never the right thing to conflate the Republican congressional agenda with Nazism.
Richard Spencer and his band of wretches can’t tear our country apart. Only the rest of us can do that. But we can pull back from the brink, if more of us put aside questions of political expediency and ask, “What is the right thing to do here?”
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.