In a year of hearing astonishing things, sometimes it’s the words you don’t hear which should be even more staggering.
Yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia, during almost a week of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, a young woman was mowed down and dozens more injured when a far-right supporter rammed his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, and then proceeded to accelerate away before being apprehended by State police. The demonstrators (and the woman killed) were attempting to protect the city of Charlotteville’s decision to remove a controversial statue, one that commemorated the Confederate General and slave-owner Robert E. Lee. The young man behind the wheel of the vehicle was one of many who had flooded to Charlottesville to attend the “Unite the Right” rally – the largest assembly of alt-right, far-right, and white extremists along with more traditional conservatives – who wanted to see the statue kept in place.
Words are important. How we talk about things, and what we say, is important.
The words you might expect to hear about this incident are “terrorism” “hate crime” “first degree murder” or similar. You might also expect to hear condemnation of the extremist groups involved; the Klu Klux Klan, the douchy-extremists the Proud Boys, the predictable Neo-Nazi groups. So it is fairly astonishing that Mr Trump refuses to call out the far right ideologies responsible for the murder. The closest he has come so far is:
“We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for.”
Which must feel like slim condolences indeed to the family of the woman murdered.
I say, of course, that we should be staggered by Mr Trump’s silence – but of course we are not. The Alt Right are the ones, after all, who helped meme him into power, and we are seeing at work the now-expected display of good-cop, bad-cop behaviour from the White House. As with North Korea, it is allowable for Trump’s advisors to make conciliatory gestures (VP Vince Pence coming out as condeming the far right) whereas POTUS himself acts the tough guy. It’s a bad rendition of The Apprentice all over again, only this time played out on the big screen of politics, and with people’s lives.
What is less reported about the events in Charlottesville, is that the city has been fighting for its civic life. A state of emergency was declared just yesterday as far right groups flooded the town and went “hunting” the pro-democracy supporters. Members of Redneck Revolt (an anti-Trump, pro-diversity Southern group) were asked by community organisers to help peaceably evacuate a multi-faith prayer meeting when the Unite Rally decided to march across the Virginia college campus, bearing torches, towards the church. In scenes reminiscent of peace campaigners in the sixties, we have also seen human chains protecting the pro-democracy supporters against the hate.
No, we shouldn’t be staggered or astonished by Mr Trump’s silence – but we should all be outraged. The American white extremists have been talking for the last couple of years about how they wish to shift the Overton window, as the right-wing website The Ralph Report puts it:
What this tells us is that even loudly advocating viewpoints you’ve been told are so “toxic” that they will instantly discredit you and your cause can actually be to your benefit, if you just do so boldly, fearlessly. By simply not apologizing for saying the Unthinkable when they tell you to do so, you make it slightly less Unthinkable. And if by saying that Unthinkable thing out loud you inspire other people to do so as well, it might suddenly no longer seem so Unthinkable anymore. Hell, you might find out that what you did was wake up a silent majority!
The thing is, with the Overton Window, and with any public debate it’s not just what you say – whether unthinkable, radical, or toxic or not, it’s also what you don’t say that frames the discourse. This tired good-cop, bad-cop show with the leader of the free world is getting boring, and it’s also just started costing lives.