On President Donald Trump’s inauguration day last Friday, Richard Spencer, an up-and-coming voice of the extreme right-wing in America, was punched in the face by a protester.
Spencer is president of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist organization, and calls for a whites-only homeland. He is sometimes credited with inventing the term “alt-right,” which is a catch-all for the extremism emerging in the United States at present. He was giving an interview to a reporter when someone stepped into the frame and punched him in the face.
Social media erupted, with plenty of people contending that punching Nazis is fair game. (For the record, Spencer had denied he is a Nazi just before the punch landed. He describes himself as an “identitarian,” which is a term associated with far-right, white supremacist ideology.)
Spencer is one among many on the far right who are emboldened
by Trump’s victory. His attacker, apparently, was emboldened by the belief that violence against people like Spencer is justifiable. This is the reality of the day in parts of the American body politic.
No one knows what the Trump administration portends. The new president contradicts himself and has no guiding ideological compass. He speaks (and tweets) without any evidence of self-control and reacts wildly to the mildest provocation. It is probably safe to venture, however, that the Trump administration will not advance the rights of women, religious or ethnic minorities, refugees and immigrants or LGBTQ people. While the Trump team includes numerous Jews, Zionists and philosemites, the campaign also attracted support from the most racist and antisemitic individuals and entities in the country. Journalists with Jewish names who reported unflatteringly on Trump have been subject to particularly brutal online harassment.
As Trump moves from rhetoric to action, we will have plenty of opportunity to analyze his record. What is likewise worthy of consideration is the manner in which the opposition to Trump manifests. The mass rallies in Washington and around the world last Saturday were inspiring. While billed as “women’s marches,” participants reflected a panoply of interests and identities. The events went off, largely, without a hitch – there were no arrests in the approximately 600 marches that took place around the world, including here in Vancouver. It remains to be seen, however, whether the outpouring of political engagement demonstrated by marchers will morph into a structured political movement. As an historian of social movements told the New York Times, after big rallies like Saturday’s “there is a lot of unfun, unglamorous work to do.”
The marchers were overwhelmingly civil, their handmade signs frequently illustrating superb wit and insight. But not all of the resistance to Trump has been as peaceful. The individual who punched Spencer represents a different sort of character.
There is a stream on the left – perhaps we should call it the “alt-left” – which exhibits its own totalitarian tendencies. So righteous are some “progressives” – we’ve seen this very clearly among some anti-Israel activists – that opposition to their target is justified by any means necessary. For some, this means punching an opponent in the face. For others, it can mean justifying such violence, or completely rejecting in other ways the right of dissenting voices to be heard.
As odious as Spencer’s ideas are, and however much we might contend that people who share such views only understand force, the introduction of violence – as well as ideological extremism in defence of liberty – is, to contradict Barry Goldwater, indeed a vice.
Most of us can probably agree that if anyone’s ideas are worthy of approbation, it is Spencer and his like. Yet if we extend this to argue that, as a result, a punch in the face is justifiable, then – does this really need to be explicitly expressed? – we accept that violence based on political disagreement is a legitimate part of our society’s foundations. If mere disagreement is enough to merit physical attack, then what will our political institutions eventually become and how will we ever be able to keep our leaders, or those with the financial and other means, from systematically abusing human rights or other oppression? With even more violence?
It is, of course, challenging to engage with supporters of a man who is belligerent and nasty, and who licenses this behaviour in his followers. The booing of Hillary Clinton during the inauguration was a symptom of the mentality of some Trump supporters.
But we side with Michelle Obama on this, suggesting that when those on the extreme right go low, those of the centre and of the reasonable left and right should go high. To employ the tactics we have seen from Trump and his supporters – lying, scapegoating, vicious personal attacks – would not only debase causes deserving of defending, it would represent a spiral from which the political system might never return.
In addition to the many differences of policy that will emerge between the Trump administration and its critics in the years to come, we hope there will also be a discernible difference of style; that, in the face of boorishness, “alternative facts” and insensitivity, the opposition will demonstrate dignity, truth and respect for humanity.