The Lincoln Memorial, the scene of some of the most riveting and consequential moments in the history of our country’s civil right movement, will on Sunday be the site of a decidedly different sort of event.
The white nationalists who will hold a rally there will not be striving to “form a more perfect Union,” as was Abraham Lincoln, but rather to break it apart.
They will not be demolishing racial barriers, as was Marian Anderson when she sang to thousands in 1939, but rather erecting them.
They will not be dreaming about ending racism, as was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke in 1963, but rather defending it.
It seems almost sacrilegious that white nationalists will be using the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop for what they are billing as a “Freedom of Speech Rally.”
But it reflects something deeply disturbing that’s happening in America: the growth of a white nationalist movement that has been energized and emboldened by the xenophobic campaign of Donald Trump.
No one should be fooled into thinking this is a “free speech” movement. That’s a mantle being claimed by bigots whose ultimate – and, of course, impossible – goal is the creation of a white ethnostate. The irony is inescapable. In such as state, people of different races, ethnicities or religions – if allowed to live there at all – would surely be denied the kind of rights, like free speech, that our democracy guarantees to all.
Among the featured speakers is Richard Spencer, an openly racist figure who last November celebrated the outcome of the presidential election by quoting Nazi propaganda in German during a gathering just blocks from the White House. When some in the audience responded with sieg heils, he rewarded them with the words, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”
In his first college speech after that rally, Spencer told his audience that “America … belongs to white men. … We own it.” He has previously called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” whatever that is. Commenting on immigration in 2014, he wrote that unless “drastic action is taken,” the grandchildren of white people in America will “live in a country that is alien and hostile.”
Now, Spencer is returning to Washington. This time, because of recent demonstrations against him and other “alt-right” figures on college campuses, he is parading around as some kind of First Amendment martyr.
Another headliner for this Sunday’s rally is Nathan Damigo, the leader of a group called Identity Evropa that has made a concerted effort in recent months to recruit young people on college campuses. To become a member, one must be of “European, non-Semitic heritage.” In a recent interview with Mother Jones, Damigo said he had become “racialized” while serving a four-year prison sentence for robbing an Arab cab driver at gunpoint. It was in an Oklahoma prison where he started down his current path by reading the former Klan leader David Duke’s autobiography.
Damigo’s star within the radical right has been rising since a video of him punching a young woman at a rally at Berkeley went viral in April. In the Mother Jones interview, he acknowledged that violence might be necessary to create the ethnostate he so fervently desires.
Spencer, Damigo and their ilk certainly have a right to speak. It’s a testament to the power of the First Amendment that they and their allies will be standing on some of our nation’s most hallowed ground – a place that celebrates our commitment to equality – to promote their profoundly undemocratic, un-American views.
But the majority of Americans who are revolted by their racist ideology must also speak. We must fight speech that threatens our democratic values with speech that upholds them.
Unfortunately, we have heard far too little from the one pulpit that could make the most difference – the White House.
President Trump has only tepidly denounced the racists and bigots who were so inspired and encouraged by his campaign. More importantly, he has done nothing to acknowledge that his own words during the campaign fanned the flames of division.
The president must do more. He should start by venturing to the Lincoln Memorial himself and reading aloud Lincoln’s affirmation of America’s most fundamental principle – “the proposition that all men are created equal.”