Peter Cvjetanovic stands in a sea of tiki torches, his mouth wide open, teeth partially bared. You can almost hear the snarling scream from the photograph.
Among the hundreds of white nationalists and Confederate sympathizers who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the night of August 11, Cvjetanovic stood out. His angry visage, captured by a photographer covering the rally, became one of the most memorable images to emerge from a surreal, chaotic, tragic weekend.
Days later, after the photo went viral, Cvjetanovic told a local TV reporter in his hometown of Reno, Nevada, that "I'm not the angry racist they see in that photo."
It sounds ridiculous. If he's not an angry racist, why was he marching with neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis—apparently without pondering how many people with similarly consonant-heavy names were butchered by the original Nazis—on a warm summer night?
The so-called "alt-right" movement germinated in online forums and grew to a state of perpetual adolescence during Donald Trump's run to the White House. Now some of its members have marched under Nazi and white supremacist flags in the streets of an American city. One of them is charged with second-degree murder after driving his car into a crowd of counterprotestors, injuring 19 people and killing a young woman, Heather Heyer.
These angry white men seem motivated by perceived threats to their identity. They believe they are innately superior to human beings born with a higher level of melanin in their skin cells. If you hang around the darker corners of the internet where they gather, you'll see half-assed attempts to justify their theory with junk science. It's standard-fare eugenics resurrected from the early 20th century and dressed up in the language of the social justice warrior era. And it is eagerly swallowed by sad people desperate to believe they are destined for greatness, whatever their jobs, bank accounts, and relationship statuses suggest.
If the pseudoscience underpinning white nationalism were true, suffice it to say, there would be no need for for torch-lit parades, no need for limiting immigration, and no need for the state to curtail the rights of other people in order to elevate whites above their competition for jobs, girlfriends, and social stature. If one race is really superior, why do the blessed need government to enforce their vision of the natural world order? A foreigner who can barely speak or write English isn't stealing your job unless you're really quite bad at doing it.
White nationalism is a blight. Thankfully, its internal contradictions render it mostly powerless in the political culture beyond internet chat boards like 4chan.
The real enemy, in Charlottesville and in other places where politically motivated violence has occurred in the past year, is collectivism—one cleverly disguised but nurtured by a group of people who profess to hate the idea.
"It's not about bad people as such," wrote Jeffrey Tucker, director of content at the Foundation for Economic Education, in the aftermath of the tragedy in Charlottesville. "What this is about is bad ideas." And the bad ideas of the alt-right and its bedfellows are similar in some ways to ideas you'll find on the radical left.
Both call for prioritizing the group—the tribe, the race, the class—above the individual. Both ask people to give up their personal identities so as to be absolved of responsibility for their failings, which are caused, they say, by someone else: the immigrants, the other races, the bourgeoisie. The only way to set things right is to seize control of the state, and with it the power to do violence against your political foes.
Cvjetanovic might be, as he claims, more than an angry racist. But when individual identities are subsumed to a collective, it becomes all the easier to be swept away, to the point where you find yourself marching alongside neo-Nazis. To the point where you become indistinguishable from them.
Yet individuals are still responsible for their actions. That's the lesson of Charlottesville—a lesson learned the hard way by the man arrested for murder, and a lesson now confronting Cvjetanovic and all the others exposed on social media for their participation in the march. Your identity cannot actually absolve you.
For the rest of us, the tragedy in Charlottesville is a lesson as well—a reminder of the dark places collectivism leads.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Charlottesville and the Perils of Collectivism".