How about people who don’t call themselves white supremacists, but instead call themselves another name that sounds an awful lot like a synonym for “Nazi”? How about people who would never think of themselves as Nazi or Nazi-adjacent, but who just so happen to agree with those groups on most issues? How about, to paraphrase President Trump, people who love statues of defeated Confederate generals so much that they’re willing to risk their reputations by marching and chanting alongside Nazis?
Until this weekend, I was confident that those numbers were small.
No mainstream film or television in 2017 makes Nazis seem like tortured bad boys just waiting for the right woman to teach them how to love. History books aren’t generous to Nazis. Many Americans had an ancestor who fought them; many Americans exist because an ancestor survived the Nazis’ campaign of mass extermination. Or an ancestor who survived slavery. An ancestor who overcame the terror of living in the shadow of racist hate. Towns in South America that became Nazi havens have downplayed their shameful legacy. “Nazi” or “white supremacist” is not a good look.
In order to choose to be a Nazi—or, again to paraphrase Trump, “Confederate general statue enthusiast”—in the U.S. at this particular moment in history, a person would either have to have access to all of the above information and decide the collected wisdom of the past is wrong—or have limited access to very available information. They’d have to watch Captain Von Trapp, simmering with masculinity as he effortlessly rips a Nazi flag in half, and think, this guy’s wrong. They’d have to listen to their grandfathers talk or poignantly not talk about their time overseas, or waiting to go overseas, or watching their friends go overseas, and think, those people should have lost. They’d have to side with history’s most evil losers. They’d have to care more about lifeless dead statues over living human beings.
In order to be a Nazi or Nazi-sympathetic in America, a person would have to look in the mirror at their fleshy neck, receding hairline, sagging eye skin, bad knees and substandard academic abilities and decide, against all visual evidence, that they are the master race.
During the Presidential campaign, there were signs that Naziism—erm, “statuephilia”—was much more prevalent than people wanted to believe. The old woman in the Trump shirt making the Nazi salute outside of a rally in Chicago. Racist incidents at Trump campaign events from his supporters. Rhetoric that was ignored or encouraged by Trump and his surrogates. Seb Gorka.
Nazis seem more visible than they were a decade ago. And it’s true Trump’s election seems to have emboldened them; they have in the White House a man who will blame “both sides” for a white supremacist killing an unarmed woman with his car. But we’ve also seen greater attention turned to fringe groups in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory, and those groups are finally being forced to show their faces.
This past weekend, the visual record of the Unite the Right rally in in Charlottesville, Virginia would suggest it’s even worse than people thought. It would suggest that white supremacy isn’t just something people harbor in secret, until they’re around others who might agree with them. It’s something they’re willing to shout from the rooftops, or from the sidewalks while hoisting tiki torches.
This weekend, members of the alt-right—a patchwork movement of Nazis and groups that agree with Nazis on most things but object to the branding—met in what promised to be the biggest gathering of that sort in recent memory. From all over they came, from California and Ohio and elsewhere, their khakis hoisted over their guts, waving flags and holding shields bearing the made-up emblems of groups with rhyming missions, ready to love some statues. Hundreds of them flanked by freelance militias cosplaying as National Guardsmen but carrying real weapons. They chanted about Jews, their feelings hurt over the proposed removal of a statue. Cameras swarmed the events, and cable news streamed footage of the protesters and counterprotesters clashing.
The notion that a significant portion of the population are Nazi sympathizers in deep cover is horrifying. But as Charlottesville cleans up the mess the agitating alt-right outsiders made of its town, it’s important to take a step back and a deep breath. That any people continue to sympathize with racist causes in 2017 is terrible; that these people sympathize so hard that they’re willing to drive their rusty Tercels to Virginia to be photographed hoodless proclaiming it, is worse. And the death of Heather Heyer is a tragedy.
Writing for Slate, Dahlia Lithwick describes Charlottesville as a town that was collectively disgusted by the alt-right rally. Citizens did not want them there. Some moved their cars into the streets so that it would be more difficult for them to find parking. Elsewhere, it seems everybody in America was denouncing the alt-right except for the President and his most ardent shills.
The Southern Poverty Law Center hasn’t counted the members of the so-called “alt-right.” A press representative tells The Daily Beast that they’re not aware of any nationwide surveys designed to count them.
However, they estimate that the KKK counts between 5,000 and 8,000 members nationwide. Back in the 1920’s, when cities across the south were erecting monuments to Confederate generals, the Klan had 4 million members. As Roger L. Simon points out, this would be an impressive decrease even if the population of the U.S. hadn’t swelled since the 1920’s. Back then, the Klan constituted about 4 percent of the entire U.S. population. Now, the KKK is near its nadir. That would make them less than 0.003 percent of the population, even on the higher end of the SPLC’s estimate. “It’s a small group of real bad people,” Simon writes.
But hundreds of protesters do not a country make. Their universal condemnation should further the point that no matter how soft-pedaled, how rebranded, how memed, this juvenile garbage has a diminishing foothold in American culture. None of this lessens the tragedy of the people who were injured, the three who died. None of this minimizes the ridiculousness of our president’s child lies about what brought the alt-right together in Charlottesville. But this country is not going to hell because a handful of lonely men who call themselves boys went to a town and yelled about Jews. Only hundreds showed up to the biggest “alt-right” meeting in the country. A single New York City subway car can hold around 200 people.
Some of the men who marched have already lost their jobs. Several participants in Unite the Right now face a $3 million lawsuit from two people injured in the car attack that killed Heather Heyer. Trump, grasping for excuses for his beloved losers, was met with incredulity from a country that cannot stand him.
Contrarian bigots will always exist, but now they’ve seen what happens when they’re emboldened to abandon the anonymity of message boards. They’re not welcome in Charlottesville, they’re not welcome in the mainstream. The few Nazi and KKK sympathizers that still exist somehow look even worse without the hoods.