Charlottesville

The mission of Legacy Chronicles Life Stories is to reconnect us to each other by securing and sharing our stories.

What we saw in Charlottesville over the weekend, including a terrorist act which killed a young woman, is the opposite. It is an example of what our society looks like when it fractures. Charlottesville demonstrated stories also have the power to disconnect, isolate and embolden our fallen nature, resulting in hatred for and violence toward others who do not hold those stories in common.

A story’s power does not flow from its truth or falsehood, but rather faith in the narrative itself. What we witnessed Friday and Saturday was a narrative using few facts strung together with many lies, structured by an overarching worldview. On the streets of America, we saw what totalitarian stories look like.

A story of hate

The neo-fascist story is broadly told as follows:

History shows that white men are meant to rule the world. They are uniquely and genetically endowed for leadership. They only fail to maintain this position due to outside forces which organize against them – in a “just” world, the greater capabilities of white men would be rewarded with upper-class status. These hostile forces can either delude white men into believing they are not special (Christianity, constitutional democracy, common morality) or they can restrict the privileges white men should enjoy (anti-discrimination laws, political correctness, “intellectualism”). The primary targets (Jews, minorities, women) are seen as usurpers of the white man’s proper place.

According to the story, these outside forces must be confronted, defeated, subjugated. When “enlightened” white men rise up, they will overcome these enemies and reestablish dominance. Since the opponents can be expected to resist, this climax will be violent. White men, endowed as they are with special courage and loyalty, must embrace this violence and adhere to a leader through the struggle who will guide them back to their rightful status at the top.

For neo-fascists, Charlottesville was a test. Will they bravely and openly stand for what they believe? Will they be prepared to use violence? Will the leader step forward to guide them?

The president's role

Before I get too far, let me address the elephant in the room: Donald Trump. I do not believe he is a neo-fascist, Nazi or KKK member. I don’t even think he is a sympathizer. What Donald Trump has proven himself to be, time and time and time again, is an egoist. His morality, if you can call it that, is based on self-worship. If he judges you to be helpful to his personal ambitions, he will bestow praise and warmth and blessings upon you. As soon as you cease to be, he will drop you. Anyone not willing to feed Donald Trump’s egoism is an enemy.

So why was the president so loathe to condemn fascists, terrorists, and at least one murderer? Because they haven’t crossed him. They support him. Indeed, most are watching him carefully, hoping he will be the “alpha male” leader who will guide them to the promised land.

Trump wants their loyalty, their enthusiasm, their praise. He couldn’t care less what they believe.

When Trump released his initial statement about the violence Saturday, saying it came from “many sides” without judging its source or offering any solutions, he was simply trying to maintain ties with people he believes adore him. If the “antifas” who were joining in the street brawls against the Nazis had been wearing the "Make America Great Again" caps, Trump would have said the exact same thing.

Monday’s direct statement condemning the neo-fascists was plainly a response to public criticism. If Trump is in any way sincere in scolding them, it is not because they executed mayhem and murder. It is because they embarrassed him.

What comes next?

If you remember your history, the rise of Nazism in Germany was a long, slow process. At the end of World War I, Germany was a mess economically and politically. Various German nationalists were trying to organize a following, defining their movement primarily by what they were against and who they hated. Adolph Hitler was just one of many, and not very prominent. There were protests, occasional riots, and clashes, along with various intrigues as would-be leaders tried to pull respected public figures over to their side. When it began to appear another of these groups, already entrenched in government positions, would try to take control nationally, Hitler felt compelled to act. In November 1923, he initiated a poorly organized revolution in Munich: the Beer Hall Putsch.

The results of this failed provincial revolt were four dead policemen, 16 dead nationalists and prison time for Hitler. He spent it writing Mein Kampf. It took another decade before Hitler rose to national power.

Even so, Hitler and his Nazi followers saw the event and its aftermath as a victory, convincing them to press on.

What seems clear is that the neo-fascists see Charlottesville as a victory, too. Yes, Trump eventually condemned them, but, from their viewpoint at least, he didn’t mean it. They can continue to rally inside Trump events, recruit others to their cause, and start to plan the next confrontation. They probably will be more cautious next time, and seek to target an opponent which, in their eyes, will be a less sympathetic victim.

The American neo-fascist story is a worldview narrative. Such all-encompassing stories create constant opportunities for confirmation. The proximate cause of the rally itself, Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was simply opportunism. These true believers had time to plan, organize and train. Similar chances can come from court dates, city council debates on immigration or race relations, the birth dates of Confederates, rallies scheduled by inviting targets like peace marches, Black Lives Matter, the Anti-Defamation League, etc.

The key to understanding neo-fascist methods is understanding that, despite their narrative of superiority, they see themselves as victims. They encourage this thread of “injustice” by getting others to react violently to their hatred.

Again, Charlottesville was a test, which the neo-fascists think they passed. The next high-profile action is likely to be bloody and shocking. Specifically, they may try to incite a riot in an African-American majority community or perhaps assassinate someone they think is seen as an enemy by a broader swath of the public. They want their violence to be noticed. They want it to force people to take sides.

This is where today’s fractured society, with politically-divided camps hurling insults and accusations with the sole intent to offend, seems less than adequate to the challenge. Social media cops patrol the web looking to enforce fealty to the cause by any wayward ally. Others crave the validation of “likes” with posts meant to enrage a generalized enemy. This same attitude seeps out into our more public actions such as parades and marches, bumper stickers and t-shirts. Free thought is not encouraged by many on the right or the left. This is the kind of environment where neo-fascism grows.

What can be done?

People of good conscience, who do believe in the liberties of a constitutional democracy, equality before the law and justice through the rule of law, need to reject the rhetoric of totalitarianism. You can’t wear a t-shirt with Castro on it and claim to believe in justice. You can’t chant “Lock her up!” when Hillary Clinton hasn’t been charged or convicted of a crime and claim to believe in the rule of law.

The danger, as we saw this weekend, is that some people will take these reckless statements and decide to act on them. Sometimes, as in the recent shootings of Republican congressmen or the attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords a few years ago, someone who is mentally ill will latch onto that rhetoric in an attempt to bring meaning to their confused lives by implementing suggested “solutions.” In more sinister cases, totalitarian believers will find justification and support through those words and act in organized ways to upend society.

Can we make a pact, not to look for opportunities to insult? Instead, let’s capitalize on chances to persuade and encourage, even when the other person believes something which seems diametrically opposed to our own point of view. We can disagree without hating the other person. It can be very difficult to restrain yourself when you feel offended or attacked (I know!); we need to do our best not to join in these “flame wars.”

We also must be willing to call out words and actions unbecoming to civil society, especially among those in positions of power. The influence of words spoken or tweeted by a leader is far out of proportion to that of the average person. Nearly everyone hears about them; nearly everyone is pushed by others to approve or reject those words. The responsible use of public communications by all our leaders, and especially the president, should be demanded. When they fail, we should all be able to stand together to tell them so.

People of good conscience also need to make a concerted effort to broaden their participation in society beyond those who look and think like themselves. One of the few goods to come from this weekend was the image of people of various races and backgrounds standing together to protest the racism of the neo-fascists. We should all take that as an invitation to stand for good as one people. When we mix and mingle, we learn about each other. We hear each other’s stories. We begin to understand other points of view. We don’t have to agree with everything in order to join against hate and violence. Maybe your participation, your story, will change someone’s point of view. Maybe their story will change your point of view.

Finally, perhaps the most difficult challenge: We need to reach out to those falling under totalitarianism’s sway. We need to interact with them, to show them the benefits of inclusion. We need to give them the chance to learn, to change, to grow. Absolutism pointed against them will only deepen divisions and allow hate to boil. We can disagree strongly and completely with their worldview while keeping open opportunities for communications and relations with individuals.

Fortunately, just as totalitarian stories have the power to engender hatred, violence, and fragmentation, other stories also have the power to grow love, peace, and relationships. We can enact these narratives in our lives which challenge the neo-fascist story and open the way for those stuck in that worldview to re-examine it and, hopefully, leave it behind. But we must unite in a story which sees its resolution in the principles of liberty, equality of justice and opportunity, and unity among many races, religions, classes, and philosophies. We must live the story that says we can celebrate differences in the characteristics of each person while holding firmly to the equality of each person’s humanity. We must stand against stories of division, and embrace stories of love.

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