Politics & Policy

How Not to Marginalize the Alt-Right

Ta Nehisi-Coates on PBS NewsHour (image via YouTube)
Leftist critics only help it by exaggerating its power and attacking even conservatives who oppose it.

An old Jewish joke, full of the mordant humor of Judaism’s darkest hours, is typically told thus:

Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”

“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know — it makes me feel a whole lot better!”

I thought of that joke upon reading Thomas Chatterton Williams’s brave New York Times column on the common threads connecting the racialism of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the racialism of Richard Spencer:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.

 . . . Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes . . . [is] in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. . . . Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

 . . . So long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

I’d excerpt even more, but you really should read the whole thing. Much as Der Stürmer did for the rabbi in the old joke, Coates makes white people sound like Sith Lords or the wizards in Harry Potter, a chosen people imbued with a secret power they need only unlock in order to thrum with supremacy and privilege regardless of their individual flaws. It’s not hard to see why this functions as a kind of escapist fantasy for a particular type of maladjusted individual. Spencer knows his audience: Jason Kessler, the lead organizer of the fatal alt-right rally in Charlottesville in August, was previously an Obama supporter and was initially attracted to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Coates is a figure of enormous cultural power, the most enthusiastically praised political writer in American history. He has used that position of power and privilege to promote a vision of America in which individuals mean nothing and race is everything — a vision that many in academia are eager to embrace. Yet the irony of the fires he plays with continually escapes him. In his “amulet of whiteness” essay, Coates angrily accused Trump and his supporters of evaluating Obama’s policies solely through the lens of Obama’s race:

For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. . . . Replacing Obama is not enough — Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. . . . Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent — an entire n[***]er presidency with n[***]er health care, n[***]er climate accords, and n[***]er justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new — the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.

Whatever the merits of this charge as applied to Trump or some number of his supporters — and surely there are those who think this way — Coates is the worst possible messenger for this complaint, and he seems oblivious to his own role in promoting the very thing he denounces.

Coates in his own writing makes clear that he himself always saw Obama as the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. In his most recent book, We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates literally refers to Barack Obama’s presidency as “We”; the color of Obama’s skin causes Coates to treat everything Obama did as the work of All Black People in general. Coates has been doing this for some time, as this 2014 essay illustrates:

The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. . . . This symbolism has real meaning. . . . And if you see someone who is black like you, and was fatherless like you, and endures the barbs of American racism like you, and triumphs like no one you’ve ever known, that too sends a message.

And this messenger — who is Barack Obama — becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities. For liberals and Democrats, the prospect of an Obama defeat in 2012 meant the reversal of an agenda they favored. For black people, the fight was existential. “Please proceed, governor,” will always mean something more to us, something akin to Ali’s rope-a-dope, Louis over Schmeling, or Doug Williams over John Elway.

How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions?

He’s not the only one; Jamelle Bouie, an ardent devotee of the Coates worldview, explained on Twitter back in 2011:

I should say, my Obama apologetics have less to do with Obama qua Obama, and more to do with Obama as black president . . . I’m want the guy to succeed [sic] — and have the perception of success — because anything otherwise could close the door for future black . . . presidents. If he doesn’t, it won’t be a case of “Barack Obama wasn’t a good president . . . ” . . . It will be a case of “this is the last time we’ll trust a black person with the White House.”

Having pushed this perspective into the political debate for eight years, Coates and Bouie are now shocked, shocked that some of Obama’s political opponents might see things their way.

The malignancy of the Coates/Spencer ethos of irrepressible conflict between two monolithically antagonistic races as a pervasive element of American society is shown in Coates’s willingness to court violent revolution, ranging from his 2014 efforts to compare the Ferguson riots favorably to the violence that led America into war with Britain to telling Vox recently that he sees our society headed for something like the Terror of the French Revolution:

Even imagining that world, Coates makes ample space for tragedy. When he tries to describe the events that would erase America’s wealth gap, that would see the end of white supremacy, his thoughts flicker to the French Revolution, to the executions and the terror. “It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.”

For Coates, even hope can be covered in blood.

Even with his signature “fade to vague” move at the end, what Coates is dog-whistling here is not hard to understand. If you were designing rhetoric to inflame people who feed on fever dreams of “white genocide,” you could hardly aim your words more precisely than this. What Coates perhaps unintentionally pursues, and what Spencer eagerly seeks, is to “heighten the contradictions”: delegitimize the center-right and center-left (mainstream conservatives are always the first target), so that nothing remains but the extremes, who share the same philosophy and differ only in who gets the spoils after the bloodletting stops. This process can work only if distinctions between the center and the extremes are either abolished or resolved in favor of the extremists. When you try to marginalize the mainstream, you end up mainstreaming the margins. That’s exactly why I have argued that we should avoid pointlessly inflammatory controversies — over Confederate symbols, for example — that accomplish nothing but to reinforce tribal camps and push the most extreme voices to the fore.

Williams’s column is courageous for telling hard truths to an audience that reveres Coates, and valuable because it seeks a way out of the box of fatalistic racial polarization. By contrast, Jane Coaston’s effort in the same pages at deriding Ben Shapiro is deeply disappointing, coming from a writer who is typically civil and open-minded enough on Twitter that she ought to know better. Coaston’s is one in a long tradition of liberal concern-trolling articles that urge conservatives (and only conservatives) to spend all their time attacking their own side, while offering not a syllable of reciprocation. Her entire thesis is that Shapiro lacks courage because he fails to criticize his own side or tell his conservative audience things they do not want to hear. Coaston, a liberal writer writing for a liberal audience at a liberal publication, proceeds to tell her liberal readers only liberal things they want to hear. In so doing, she makes it harder, not easier, to find common ground, and serves the Coates/Spencer goal of marginalizing the mainstream.

The news hook for Coaston’s piece is a fair hit against Shapiro, albeit one that has little enough relation to her actual argument: His site, The Daily Wire, posted a Columbus Day cartoon video that was obnoxious and frankly more than a little racist. Shapiro has since properly apologized for the video, which he says was published while he was on vacation. (Coaston neither disputes nor quotes this, though she does quote other portions of the statement.) But Coaston overreads this into a wholesale indictment of Shapiro and the Daily Wire as spineless shills that the facts don’t support.

One wonders how Coaston’s thesis, which compares Shapiro to Donald Trump, can be squared with the fact that Shapiro for the past 18-plus months has been a prominent Trump critic and Never Trumper. Coaston’s answer is simply not to tell her audience that uncomfortable fact, which interferes with her narrative. Shapiro’s stand ultimately led him to resign his job as an editor at Breitbart in protest after the site’s pro-Trump tilt grew so pronounced that it sided with Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski over its own reporter, Michelle Fields, over Fields’s allegation that Lewandowski had manhandled her at a rally. None of this is discussed.

In a 2016 report, the Anti-Defamation League found that Shapiro had been the recipient of the most anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter from August 2015 to July 2016, a fact attributable in significant part to his opposition to Trump:

In February and March 2016, as the so-called #NeverTrump movement took hold, self-styled Trump supporters from the alt-right attacked. (Alt-right is short for “alternative right,” “a range of people on the extreme right who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy”). This is when the Twitter attacks on Ben Shapiro, an originator of the #NeverTrump movement, began in earnest.

I don’t know Shapiro personally outside of Twitter, but I’ve been retweeted by him enough times to get a taste of the torrents of vile hatred that pour into his feed daily, and it’s really something to behold. Again, Coaston fails to mention this.

Coaston argues that “what Mr. Shapiro does on campus is shadow boxing meant to pander to his conservative fans whose values dominate mainstream American culture.” Her evidence that conservative values dominate America’s media, entertainment, and academic culture is . . . just that she says so. No evidence is cited. By contrast, the college-student audiences at Shapiro’s speaking events are well aware that they attend institutions at which the authority figures are all but unanimously against them.

Efforts to paint such sites as the Federalist and the Daily Wire as alt-right propaganda outlets illustrate why so many conservatives feel that invitations to ‘national conversations’ about race are just a plan to sandbag them.

Coaston contends that the Daily Wire and the Federalist, her other target, “aren’t embracing the kind of real debate that they pay lip service to on campuses; they are spoon-feeding screeds to their right-wing readers.” She cites a few scattered poll findings about the views of conservative voters. But she makes no effort to contrast this with liberal journals of opinion, nor does she examine the views of liberal voters.

Coaston’s attack on the Federalist is scattershot, and built mostly on a handful of selective and unrelated quotations. Now, the Federalist is run by friends of mine, and I wrote there periodically for the first two years of the site’s existence. I don’t necessarily agree with all of its content or approve of all of its writers (any more so than I do in the case of the Daily Wire). But a variety of perspectives that disagree with one another is something you find on most serious journals of the Right in the Age of Trump. To suggest that the site is lockstep in its opinions or shies away from inward-looking criticisms of the GOP or the Right in general is ludicrous. Publisher Ben Domenech is regularly critical of Republicans — he was one of the first people to warn of the dangers of the GOP’s becoming “identity politics for white people” — and other of the site’s writers can be brutally hard on Trump and his acolytes. Senior editor David Harsanyi wrote just Wednesday — hardly the first column on the site in this vein — that “Even If Trump’s Threat against NBC Isn’t Serious, It’s Still Destructive.” Columnist David Marcus has written his own take on why “It’s Time for Conservatives to Confront Racism.”

Wandering further from her original thesis, Coaston complains that the Federalist “had a ‘black crime’ tag on its website until two weeks ago,” a criticism plainly aimed at guilt-by-association with Breitbart’s often racially incendiary coverage of crime stories. The phrasing is unfortunate, but tags aren’t even part of the text of a story; they’re appended in small print at the bottom just for search engines and sorting, so they’re not really suited for nuance. I confess that, in the two years I wrote for the Federalist, I never even noticed that there were tags at the bottom of my essays. So far as I can tell — since the site, much unlike Breitbart, deleted the tag as soon as it attracted any notice — over a couple of years the tag appeared on only five or six posts, the first two of which seem to have been a piece by a black writer addressing remarks by President Obama about race, crime, and law enforcement, and a testimonial from a black police officer about shaking off his own “racism blinders.” To generalize from that and hold it up as some sort of moral lesson about what the site will and won’t tell its readers, when likely well north of 99 percent of them never even saw the tag, amounts to rhetorical sleight of hand. The site has run an article asking “Why Are Conservatives Soft on Police Brutality?” and another offering practical suggestions for reforming traffic stops. It has published numerous pieces railing against the shooting of Philando Castile (one of those pieces was headlined “The Acquittal Verdict in the Philando Castile Case Is an Abomination”), and if you are in the mood to dig through its tags, you can peruse a variety of perspectives on “police brutality” and “police abuse.” Just as is true here at National Review, those perspectives are hardly uniform. But again, none of that makes it into Coaston’s column.

Efforts to paint such sites as the Federalist and the Daily Wire as alt-right propaganda outlets inevitably devolve into a “marginalize the mainstream” drive, and vividly illustrate why so many conservatives feel that invitations to “national conversations” about race relations are just a plan to sandbag them in bad faith. “They’re going to call you that anyway” is the siren song of the alt-right, and one that seduced all too many on the right into excusing Trump’s sins in the 2016 campaign. It’s why those of us who’d like to seek out common ground and practical solutions on these kinds of issues keep getting drowned out by flag protests and glowing amulets.


    The Alt-Right and White Nationalism

    The Inverse Relationship of the Alt-Right and Antifa

    Ta-Nehisi Coates Isn’t Always Well Received


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