"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, President Trump commented August 12 after bloody and lethal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. "On many sides."
He got a public tongue-lashing for his words. That's because Trump has lost the moral authority to lay into thugs of all types. But the rest of us can do better.
The problem many Americans had with Trump's weasel words was that Heather Heyer was dead, and many other people injured, in Charlottesville, allegedly at the hands of James Alex Fields, Jr., a neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd in an act of political terrorism. And Fields was in Charlottesville to attend a rally featuring a dollar-store version of a Leni Riefenstahl torch-lit parade, chants of "Jews will not replace us," and racist speakers like Richard Spencer, who openly support Trump. A little specificity in placing blame would seem to be in order, but was prominent by its absence in Trump's comments.
"One has to take sides," Shuja Haider wrote at Jacobin, echoing other voices on the left. "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."
Take a side? You bet. But Haider and company are trying to force a false choice. They'd have you believe that advocates of free speech, open society, tolerance, and peaceful political change have to pick between fascists with tiki torches and masked "anti-fascists" clashing with them in the streets. But advocates of a free, open, and liberal society are a side—the correct side—and the left-wing and right-wing thugs battling in the streets are nothing more than rival siblings from a dysfunctional illiberal family.
In June, James Hodgkinson opened fire on Republican members of Congress gathered for a baseball practice. That the supporter of Occupy Wall Street and former Bernie Sanders volunteer sent six people, including Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), to the hospital instead of the morgue was a consequence not of better intentions than his soulmate, Fields, but rather a result of fortunately bad aim.
Before that, left-wing protesters violently shut down a Middlebury College speech by Charles Murray, injuring Professor Alison Stanger in the process, rioted over a speech by professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and forced the cancellation of a Republican parade in Portland, Oregon, with promises that "the police cannot stop us from shutting down roads." They boast of their contempt for free speech.
Right-wing and left-wing mobs seem to have a few preferred Thunderdome venues where they set up regular fight-club dates. "For reasons political and geographic, Berkeley has become a particularly common battleground," reports the Los Angeles Times. "They will glom themselves onto a tax day rally, a Trump rally, but there is a subgroup of extremists on both sides who are angling for a street battle," said criminal sociologist Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.
Fight-club dates? Yes. This is an old and unoriginal kabuki theater of political violence, echoing another period when demoralized advocates of liberal democracy were urged to pick between competing brands of illiberalism as if their own set of principles didn't represent a side in itself.
"Antifa traces its roots to the 1920s and '30s, when militant leftists battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain," notes Peter Beinart in The Atlantic.
Partisans of "pick a side" insist that every mention of violence by both right-wing and left-wing thugs is an exercise in "whataboutism." That is, an attempt to deflect from one's own sins by invoking the misdeeds of the opposition. In the case of Donald Trump's hemming and hawing over Charlottesville, that's likely true. Asked to comment on a terrorist act by a neo-Nazi at a rally of racists and neo-Nazis who have vocally lent the sitting president their support, an invocation of "many sides" sounds an awful lot like whataboutism intended to shift blame from his friends.
But for those of us already calling out the violent bigots flaunting Nazi imagery, it's not whataboutism to point out that an alleged alternative isn't actually an alternative at all—it's just another version of the same thing. As New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg tweeted from Charlottesville, "The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding 'antifa' beating white nationalists being led out of the park." She later, understandably, changed "hate-filled" to "violent," since actions are clearer and more important than motivations. And CNN's Jake Tapper commented that "At least two journalists in Charlottesville were assaulted by people protesting the Klan/Nazi/alt-right rally."
But is it fair to compare the violent far left in our streets to the violent far right opposing them? The left-wing antifa activists claim to be opposing the powers-that-be.
It's certainly true that the violent right generally supports President Trump. Given that support, his hesitancy about criticizing even the most extreme Nazi imagery and lethal violence (he did call out "racist violence" two days later, then walked it back) creates the impression that, if he isn't explicitly sympathetic to the marching morons at Charlottesville, he at least enjoys basking in the scented glow of tiki torches. If we're balancing dangers on the great scale of suckage, that connection to the White House would seem to make the fascist right the more immediate threat.
But that doesn't mean we have to pick a competing brand of ideological awfulness as a viable alternative to fascism. The thugs on the left have already proved themselves to be violent and intolerant. There's no reason to favor one illiberal force over another when our country has a long history based on much different, and much better, political principles.
"Sooner or later… one has to take sides—if one is to remain human," Haider writes, quoting a character from Graham Greene's The Quiet American. "The liberal center has to heed the same warning," Haider adds. "In order to reject Trump's equivocations about 'many sides,' we have to take one."
But the character Haider quotes is a member of Vietnam's Communist party—which killed "probably about 1,040,000" people in the post-Vietnam War period, after it came to power over the united country, as estimated by the late Prof. R. J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii. What about that? That's an unpalatable side to pick in any situation.
We do have to pick a side. But we already have one. Despite our many differences over specific policies, most Americans have traditionally supported the side of liberty, tolerance, free speech, and peaceful political change, within broad parameters. That side is in opposition to the violent, authoritarian thugs of the right and of the left. If we regain our faith in what we already have, there's no reason to choose between rival siblings competing to rule over the ruins of everything that's worthwhile on behalf of their illiberal family.