Subterranean Passion and the Great Divide
By John Owens
The events of the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia have collectively exposed the dark elements of American society that individually we’ve already known to exist. Those who have continued to believe in the lie that traditional forces of the extreme right no longer exist were abruptly bludgeoned over the head Saturday.
Not only do these poisonous ideologies still exist as they did in the past, but they’re now exceedingly more potent given the legitimacy afforded to Donald Trump and the Alt-right’s conspiratory propaganda. The images that were broadcast appeared eerily familiar to those who view social reality through the lens of history: Flags with bold color and stark symbolism. Unified wardrobe and dramatic saluting. The expression of brutal and intoxicated rage.
These are the images that conjure up memories of the not-so-distant past for those who allow it. For those who have lived in the comfortable unreality of ignorance, the sudden display of admiration and empowerment for the warped tenants of far-right institutions, such as the Confederacy and the Third Reich, will come as a shock. What was once thought of as long buried within the ash heap of history is, alas, alive and well. More importantly, the rally exposed the myth that America had moved on from the shadow of its former self and that it’s citizens were graciously striding on the righteous path of modernistic unity.
Charlottesville is a reminder that there has always existed an existential struggle between fundamentally opposing ideological attitudes relating to — amongst many other things — class, race, gender and geographic location. Whether it’s through the appearance of economic development, the distractions of entertainment or the advancement in technology, nothing can shroud the fact that divisiveness has outmatched solidarity in America.
From the nation’s inception, these aforementioned social groups have been more or less compelled to coexist by means of a unified nationalist doctrine and eventually, more crucially, through an economic social order. In other words, coercion has always been the American way.
In the beginning, people were physically taken from their homes in foreign lands and then sold via auction to landowners, primarily in the South. Their fate was to be violently forced to perform manual labor for hours on end for an elite, white dominated class with complete legal protection from the State. For better or worse, slavary became the post-feudal system that laid the foundation of economic stimulation and prosperity for a newborn country.
This inevitably propagated a culture of dependence which, in turn, cultivated an inwardly hate from Southern whites towards black slaves. Essentially viewed as subhuman and less than worthy of basic decency, this began one of the primary cracks in the Great Divide of American society. The hatred and degradation wasn’t just exlusive to blacks in the South. White elites in the North — primarily merchants, landowners and politicians— would regard the African race with the same level of disdain though more often without the outright brutality of their southern counterparts.
Following the Civil War and the emancipation of slavery, the bitter resentment of whites in the South towards a newly freed black population would create a legacy of hatred, violence and separatist nationalism — not unlike the far-right in Weimar Germany.
Despite what the celebrants of emancipation proclaimed to accomplish, people of color would continue to be terrorized for decades through means of bigotry, discrimination and murder. This terrorization didn’t let up with the expansion of civil rights and desegregation in the 1960s; it just altered in composition. A new form of oppression would take shape in the dawn of the neo-liberal period: the war on drugs, a steady growth of the prison system and the militarization of law enforcement.
During this period, the rise of modern conservatism breathed new life into a declining post-liberal era. Leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who’s brand of pro-capitalist, anti-socialist rhetoric tapped into the hearts and minds of a burgeoning generation of reactionaries. Ignoring the overwhelmingly disproportionate injustice within black America, newly emboldened yet financially downtrodden whites— primarily in rural areas — considered themselves to be the ultimate victims of oppression.
For them, the ills of life require a scapegoat to make sense of what they perceive as the steady collapse of traditional America. Immigrants, minorities and the political left were perfectly fit for that designation. Contemporary outlets like AM talk radio and the Fox News channel would perpetuate this message and capitalize on the “New Right” revival by injecting ideology and sensationalism into an otherwise objective political platform.
However much momentum the conservative movement may have gained from the 1970s up until 2008, a sharp chasm would begin to develop between establishment Republicans and the conservative voting base.
Following the historic election of Barack Obama and the implementation of much needed (yet hardly sufficient) centrist policies, a new style of dissent would emerge. With the help of charlatans like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones pushing wildly fictitious narratives into people’s heads, many on the right would fanatically interpret the administration’s rather modest domestic agaenda as a Bolshevik style coup d’etat.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the following recession would intensify these trends to an even higher degree. A slow recovery period coupled with the fallout from mass forclosure proved devastating for millions of people. The middle class shrank as jobs were cut or outsourced while corporate profits soared to new heights.
Instead of placing the blame on those who rightfully deserved it — namely the financial institutions and past politicians who sanctioned their deregulation— the right would point to present-day Democratic legislation like the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank as the culprits for economic hardship. The faux-grassroots, Koch-devised Tea Party movement was the most outspoken promoter for these misguided and misinformed theories.
As time went on, however, the economy did level off and jobs slowly increased. Progressive social policy like marriage equality and environmental regulation would gain traction but only so far. With the Republicans winning a majority of seats in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama faced an obstructionist Congress for the rest of his tenure, making any meaningful reform dead on arrival. Thus, a universal skepticism of government spread throughout the public resulting in both the right and left effectively declaring war on the status quo.
No matter how imminent it appeared, defeat would never be a realistic option for the disillusioned right. If the GOP were completely impotent in fulfilling their promises and the mainstream media unwilling to report objectively on the destructive liberal agenda, desperate times now called for desperate measures.
Refuge would take place in a uniquely modern ideological faction developed in large part from a pervasive fear of racial irrelevancy. Known as the Alt-right, it’s followers denounced conventional politics for it’s weak concessions to liberal policy and it’s hyper sensitivity to political correctness. They also expressed a general contempt for an unabashedly bias media who demonize conservatives and fail to acknowledge the true problems facing the nation. Coinciding with this, white supremecy groups like the KKK and the National Socialist Movement — who share similar backwards views on nationalism, nativism, racism, anti-egalitarianism and so forth— never actually dissolved but would continue to lurk amongst the shadows of peripheral America.
The crucial element needed in illuninating and uniting these marginilized groups was a leader who appeared to represent them. Someone who would finally take a stand against the corrupt elites in Washington, the social justice warriors who were stifling their right to speech, or the immigrants and people of color who stole their jobs, lived off their tax dollars and caused mayhem in the streets. This figure would finally arrive in the form of real estate tycoon Donald Trump.
A professional provocateur and flagrant opportunist, Trump built an empire through privilege, manipulation and the exploitation of the legal system. Born a pathological narcissist, his drive for money and power was the result of the nurturement of his ego and the suppression of his self hatred.
While the amassment of wealth never truly materialized his ideal legacy, the logical next step was to strive to attain the most powerful position on earth—regardless of whether or not he knew or cared about public service. To his admirers, this mattered not. What did matter was that he spoke their language, gave voice to those who had none and filled the void of right-wing alienation. The time was right to come out of the shadows.
For the left, the re-emergence of fascism is an inevitable stage in the natural development of global neo-liberal capitalism. After decades of economic privitization, government austerity and the overall corporate dismantling of democratic institutions, could anything arise from this but desperation and tribalism? A social order dependent on inequality and exploitation will always create conditions that awaken our most barbaric tendencies. This is why the left will forever clash with the right, ideologically and physically, because of one side’s principles to protect equality and another to destroy it.
Based on the violence and carnage that we’ve beared witness to in Charlottesville, there now cannot be any room for debate as to whether the radical right has prevalence in 21st century America nor if the great divide in our society still exists. The question now is whether we will continue this legacy of division, indifference, and ignorance or somehow unite to destroy mankind’s most egregious ideas. If history is any indication, I’m not optimistic.