In some ways, the grimly telegenic events in Charlottesville last week tell us less about the state of the country than meets the eye. Even according to the less-than-neutral Southern Poverty Law Center, membership in white nationalist groups has been in steady decline since 2011. It appears to have been less a “coming out party” for a rising force in American politics and more a desperate bid for continuing relevance. One proud white supremacist bragged to a Vice reporter at the time of the rally that it was the biggest of its kind in over two decades, a boast that sounds ominous on its face but in fact is less impressive after a second of reflection. For one, the event was organized over the internet, with some participants coming to Charlottesville from as far away as Canada; this suggests that the number of proudly and openly racist people in the United States (or even in North America as a whole) remains vanishingly small. For another, if this rally was in fact eclipsed by a larger one in the 1990s, I struggle to conjure up any memories of the earlier demonstration; this also suggests that the felt impact of this rally had little to do with its size and everything to do with a transformed media landscape.
Still, Charlottesville may yet end up as a clarifying moment for the United States. We increasingly seem to have forgotten that one of the keys to a well-functioning democracy is a strong shared sense of purpose—a common identity that unites all our citizens. Cultivating unity these days often takes a back seat to a determined effort to emphasize our differences. And in de-emphasizing unity, all too often it seems that we blithely assume that our “mature” democracy can easily cope with whatever we throw at it. The 2016 election was to an astonishing degree defined by identity politics, and the outcome of such a vote both made something like Charlottesville inevitable, and our collective reaction to it a litmus test for the health of our Republic.
Now of course, in one sense, identity politics are nothing new. A violent form of reactionary identity politics has flourished in America ever since Lincoln freed the slaves.1 The 1960s, however, saw identity politics gradually emerge as a revolutionary force on the Left. Starting with Civil Rights, through feminism, and on to LGBTQ activism today, with each successive breakthrough the logic of the movement has become embedded in the thinking of an ever-wider segment of the Left, to the extent that today it is taken for granted by many. These movements have sought justice for oppressed groups by increasingly relying on mechanisms gleaned from a radical postwar political philosophy explicitly intended to serve as a critique and rejection of the Enlightenment in the shadow of the Holocaust: postmodernism.
One can easily get lost in the minutiae of these philosophies and forget the bigger picture, which is that the politics of postmodernism are ultimately incompatible with liberal democracy. Since it got its start as a radical form of literary criticism, postmodernism is a philosophy of competing “narratives” that sees dominant ones violently suppressing weaker “others” as part of an endless zero-sum competition that leaves no room for meaningful political compromise. The struggle ends up being not between ideas, but between groups that have to varying degrees been repressed, each with its own set of contingent “truths.” To challenge any of these truths on objective grounds represents a mortal threat, an attempt by “hegemony”/”patriarchy”/”capital” (take your pick) to “silence” the weak, to deprive them of their very ability to exist. Even at its least violent—when it is not calling for the overthrow of the dominant “narrative” but rather asking for the space to have a thousand (identity) flowers bloom—postmodernism doesn’t allow for any kind of positive, constructive politics. Everything boils down to an absolute struggle between oppressor and oppressed. There is no room for a common positive vision in such a Manichean world.
The above rough sketch cannot be perfectly fair to the life works of the often-confounding continental philosophers we lump together as “postmodernist.” But I hope it at least presents a recognizable snapshot of the way politics are increasingly done by both sides in America today. Yes, both sides—President Trump was essentially correct in calling attention to that fact in his remarkable presser earlier this week, although not in the way he may have thought.
Donald Trump’s presidency represents the most recent mutation and metastasis of an intellectual cancer that has thus far been mostly confined to the revolutionary Left. Many have asserted that Donald Trump’s ascent paralleled the rise of Bernie Sanders, ascribing both politicians’ success to a resurgent populism grounded in economic grievance. While there some truth to this, it’s perhaps more accurate to see Trump as the perfect counterpart to Hillary Clinton—a champion of the identity politics of white males, an increasingly threatened and marginalized group that had finally adopted the toolset honed over decades by the groups that Hillary Clinton had come to represent. Political scientists talk about increasing polarization in the American electorate; another way to describe the same phenomenon is to say that identity politics is displacing a democracy grounded in a shared sense of purpose. People are having trouble finding a middle ground precisely because identity politics does not admit of compromise.
Charlottesville was itself not an expression of postmodern identity politics. On the Right, it was an attempted show of strength by reactionaries who trace their foul lineage back to Reconstruction, not the sixties. And the counter-protesters on the Left, even smaller in number, had among them a violent fringe calling itself “antifa” that traces its intellectual roots to Marxism, anti-capitalism, and anarchism—all solidly “modern” (as opposed to postmodern) antecedents.
The broader reaction to the event, however, is what deserves our close attention. The first punches may well have been thrown by antifa activists, and it’s this that probably prompted President Trump to say in his initial remarks that “hatred, bigotry, and violence” were coming from “many sides.” But it’s not only Trump’s equivocation as the President of the United States that is notable. It’s the kind of gleeful support his relativism received in conservative media, which saw his stance primarily as a blow against the cultural hegemony of the Left—as standing up for an increasingly “othered” class of white people.
Unlike either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama seemed to understand the dangers of identity politics instinctively, and he ran his campaigns accordingly. Instead of running to be America’s first black President (as Hillary shamelessly did to be America’s first woman President), Obama consciously chose to run only as an American, seeking to represent all of America (“not red… not blue…”). Especially early on in his presidency, he took flak for this non-identitarian positioning from both sides of the political spectrum. From the far Left, he was accused of being “insufficiently black,” or of being too deferential to white sensitivities—an “Uncle Tom” President. On the fringes of the Right (the sewers that Donald Trump comfortably called his home), Obama’s very identity was called a lie; he was accused of being a foreign-born Muslim, and his claims to being an American-born Christian were presented as a vast conspiracy between Democrats, the media, and other shadowy elites to foist an illegitimate President on the nation. Obama’s politics unambiguously tended to the Left, but his politicking avoided identity. The vital importance of this sensibility to the smooth functioning of our democracy is best felt in its absence.
One could easily imagine a President responding to Charlottesville in a way that disavowed both white supremacists and far-Left anarchists, without equivocation. “Racism has no place in the kind of society we are trying to build together,” such a President might say. “Loud displays of bigotry and hatred by those marching in Charlottesville, and their attachment to a past we have long been struggling to overcome, is a sad sight that shows us how far we still have to travel.” “At the same time,” the President might continue, “free speech is a value we hold as dear as equality itself. Those resorting to violence in order to stop its exercise are no heroes. They themselves are un-American.”
That was, more or less, the gist of President Trump’s prepared remarks on Monday, before the fateful press conference, when he tried to walk back his initial statement about “many sides.” He read from a teleprompter through gritted teeth. His delivery was not credible, and neither his supporters nor his opponents were mollified. In any case, on Tuesday Donald Trump doubled down on the postmodern approach, firmly casting his lot with the identitarians, and banking his political prospects on the premise that identity politics is the future.
Would a President Hillary Clinton have fared any better? She would have denounced the white supremacists immediately, and may have tried to seize the moral high ground a few days later by paying lip service to the importance of free speech. Superficially, the trauma of Charlottesville would have been dealt more quickly, and pundits would follow up in the coming weeks writing pious op-eds about how Clinton had managed so expertly to heal the nation’s wounds, and thus become the President of all America.
But would that have been really true? I have my doubts. Given that she would have been elected on an explicit appeal to identity politics, her opponents, too, would be up in arms. The media would try to write it off as indecent partisan grousing, but the truth is our collective crisis of political legitimacy would be no less real—just more submerged. The ideal of a unifying identity still exists as an abstraction in most Americans’ minds, but increasingly it feels like neither side can admit that its opponents can credibly speak for it. That’s not a good place for our democracy, or our Republic, to be.