The Price of Pieties

#6 -- What I've been ducking since Charlottesville

Right after Trump's final Charlottesville press conference in 2017, I had lunch with a Trump-sympathizing liberal (they exist) who said the President's response had been inadequate -- the "both sides" comment, the failure to fully blame the "white nationalists" holding the rally. Emotionally (and politically) he was right -- I mean, a woman had been killed by a white nationalist,. Still, I balked. He seemed to be saying Trump should mouth the pieties, much as Trump did Monday morning with respect to the El Paso/Dayton massacres:

In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.

Also murder. I agree with all these sentiments. And yet .… what was the hang-up? I've told myself in the intervening months I need to figure that out. But, gee, I never find the time. After El Paso it's hard to dodge any longer. Here goes:

Let's start with The Plan. If you lived in Washington DC in the 70s and 80s, you know about The Plan. According the Wikipedia, it is a "conspiracy theory in Washington, D.C. that since the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, white people have had a 'plan to take back' the black-majority city and the offices of the local government."  DC was solidly majority African American --"Chocolate City" -- but blacks thought their community and local culture were threatened with displacement by powerful white interests (who knew how much inner city land close to downtown was worth). Under The Plan, supposedly, whites would replace blacks, who'd be forced to move to the suburbs when they were unable to afford rising home prices. Any civic improvement, like better schools, came to seem a sinister part of The Plan -- better schools would raise property values even more and blacks would never get to attend them.

Were those who believed The Plan practicing "identity politics"? You bet. Were they "black supremacists." Hardly. They were simply trying to preserve the community, culture, and autonomy they had. This seems like a natural human instinct.** They wanted black control of their city, but nobody could be under any illusion that meant supremacy or separatism in any larger (e.g. national) sense. Not even across the river in Virginia. Were they crazy? Maybe a little -- some apparently thought an obscure body, the Federal City Council, was secretly running things. But it's hard to say they were that crazy. The Plan is basically what happened, after all. Property values rose, blacks moved to the suburbs. Washington, DC is no longer majority-black, though the cultural battle is still raging (recently over attempts to stop loud go-go music).

You can see where I'm going with this. Trump got a lot of grief for his "very fine people on both sides"comment about Charlottesville even though he clearly wasn't talking about the "neo-Nazis and white nationalists" (whom he condemned four times during the conference).*** But he was obviously unwilling to condemn somebody that the press expected him to condemn. Who? Trump said it was the people who weren't marching with tiki torches chanting about Jews, but were "protesting very quietly the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee." OK. Statue defenders. But they seem merely representative of a larger group that Trump doesn't think he can, or should, write off. What group?****

As a Tweeter with a fair number of followers who might be part of this constistuency (in part because I don't believe in blocking), I think I have some idea who they are. They aren't racist loons like the El Paso terrorist (who, if his alleged "manifesto" is to be believed, opposes "race-mixing" and wants to partition the country by race). They aren't white supremacists, or even "white nationalists," if that term means what I think it means (that the nation must be dominated by whites and white culture). They're the Caucasian flip side of the paranoid coin of The Plan. They look around them and (rightly or wrongly) feel the culture of their communities is under assault. Far from being "supremacist," they're battered, defensive -- seeing themselves as victims of large forces. They're constantly told they'll soon be a minority and they worry about preserving what they have, not lording it over others.

Should they be condemned? Well, certainly in the sense that all identity politics -- maybe especially white identity politics -- should be condemned. Identity politics is a huge mistake. But since the mainstream press doesn’t actually condemn black or brown or Jewish or Somali identity politics, it's hard to get too righteous when whites go down the same road. And of course they should be condemned when they veer into anti-Semitism, as some do (the changes that threaten them become a Jewish conspiracy). Victimhood is self-indulgent, addicting. Are they really victims, or do they just not like the color or strangeness of the people who moved down the street? Still, when explicit and de facto race preferences govern things like jobs and school admissions -- when the democratically agreed-upon limits on immigration (a million a year) are broken by a seemingly unlimited number of foreign asylum claimants who get to stay for years while the system processes the claims and still get to stay after the claim is (typically) rejected -- it's hard to say the are fantasizing, any more than DC's blacks were fantasizing.

“Fine people"? Put it another way: If you were President, are they people you'd cast outside the pale of democratic discourse? I don't think so (even if you didn't see them as your 'base') -- anymore than you should cast DC's Plan truthers outside the pale. You'd want to respond to their legitimate concerns while helping them flourish under those changes that are unavoidable or necessary. The pieties would instead toss them into the "hate" bin. That's something Trump refuses to do. I don't blame him.

I wish that ended the matter, but it doesn't, There are pieties on the border-control side (my side) of the debate too -- one in particular — that may need to be reassessed. I'm thinking of the idea that immigration is like any other issue when it comes to provoking violence. After all, it would be wrong to murder anyone in the pursuit of tax reform or clean air or the Universal Basic Income (which was another cause of the El Paso shooter). Likewise, it's wrong to resort to violence against immigrants just because you believe in drastically reducing immigration. Hate policies, not people! As the restrictionist group NumbersUSA puts it:

We have always urged our fellow Americans who are concerned about immigration to refrain from anger toward the foreign-born who live among us. To talk about changing immigration numbers is to say nothing against the individual immigrants in this country.

But it seems almost willfully naive to pretend that the temptation to awful behavior isn't greater on the issue of immigration than on, say, health care reform (though a Bernie Bro did try to murder a group of Republicans in the name of single payer, and the jury's still out on the Dayton shooter's motive). Restrictionists want to reduce the number of foreigners flocking into the country. And here they are, right in front of you, moving in across town, going to your schools, often using local welfare programs. It doesn't seem all that easy to avoid getting angry at them. It’s certainly easier to lash out at them than it is to, say, fight for tax reform by attacking New York hedge fund managers who claim the carried interest loophole, or to fight for cheaper health care by taking a battering ram to a nearby hospital.

It doesn't help, of course, that the reigning piety from the media calls for, not just restraint, but "love" for all those who “live among us.” If you're going to have to love-as-your-brothers the very people you want to keep out -- well, isn't that another way of saying you should give up and stop trying to keep them out? The official counsel of healing looks an awful lot like a counsel of surrender. The only acceptable mindset is ‘Sorry, you lose.'

The point’s not that immigration-controllers are inherently violent, or (obversely) that Presidents should condemn any violence by them less. It's that a realistic proscription of violence needs to go beyond bromides about hate-has-no-place and grapple with the special temptation (for Trump’s hidden Charlottesville consituency, among others) to cross NumbersUSA's line and actually get angry, if not hate-filled. One way might be to give official permission to stop somewhere on the unidealized side of "love" -- something like "look, you don't have to love all of these people, but they're human beings who are doing what you'd be doing in their shoes. We need to live together while we work to control the border.'

The other way is to just make it clear that precisely because avoiding the temptation of anger isn’t necessarily easy, giving in and acting on it is something society has to proscribe all the more vigorously. Build a moral wall, with barbed  wire, in the middle of the slippery slope. If Trump had just burst out -- "My God, these are human beings, mothers and children" — in the middle of his telepromptered Monday speech it would have destroyed any argument he hadn't risen to the occasion.

An honest, effective speech along these lines would be a hard speech to write. FDR's White House could do it. Not sure Trump is up to it — he'll deliver more keyed-in pieties, which he sees through, and then be accused of insincerity.

But maybe he should give it a try.

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** Another example: Locals in Long Island City who resisted “Amazon’s invasion” and its expected impact on their “vibrant cultural community.”

*** While the press criticizes Trump for encouraging white nationalists, it’s so determined to portray him as a racist that it tweaks everything he says in the direction of giving the maximum possible encouraging effect — helping produce the outcome it claims to want to avoid. Here the tweaking often involved misreporting of the “fine people” comments. Rich Lowry has more recent example.

**** Whether this group actually existed at the Charlottesville rally is another issue. I think the answer is clearly yes, judging from my Twitter feed (and a New York Times account, and this). Robert Tracinski's argument in The Bulwark that they couldn't have existed because none of his very fine pro-statute friends attended made for one of the least convincing articles I've read recently.