David Maraniss is a well-respected biographer of American presidents and commentator. On Wednesday, after Donald Trump pointedly laid some of the blame for the violence in Charlottesville at the feet of anti-fascist protesters, Maraniss tweeted this:
Sure. Maybe they should do this. No reason not to, I guess. But the idea that such a statement would actually stem the tide of resurgent white nationalism is a naive fantasy, one that offers little comfort to the people whose lives are actually being put in danger by the Trump administration. The right words won’t save us.
A modern failure of liberal thought is the equation of strongly-worded press releases with political action. People like Maraniss and other purveyors of Political Discourse cling to the hope that a well-deployed statement from an elder statesmen could be what leads to Trump’s downfall—“At long last, have you no decency, sir?” etc. Once the ex-presidents gang weighs in, we will finally return to being a society of norms and civility, and watch The West Wing reruns in peace.
This is magical thinking.
White supremacists in Charlottesville beat Deandre Harris with poles in a parking garage. He chipped a tooth, broke his wrist and had to get eight staples in his head. Alexis Morris and her 13-year-old daughter, Noelle, had their limbs crushed when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into the crowd of protesters. Heather Heyer lost her life.
Much of the political commentariat’s response to the terror in Charlottesville has been the usual rallying cry of the sanguine: “This. is. not. us!!!” Worse, some outlets now engage in that other ahistorical liberal pastime, imagining a past when the opposition was Respectable, harkening back to the Good Old Days of American politics when our presidents publicly denounced overt bigotry—while still stoking it for political support.
Ronald Reagan infamously kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, and used coded language about “states’ rights” that his white audience certainly understood. After employing the racist boogeyman of the “welfare queen” on the campaign trail, he spent eight years implementing an economic and carceral agenda that was largely catastrophic to black Americans. But he knew to say the right words, sometimes. (He was, after all, an actor, too.)
The animating impulse of the fantasy is that Trump supporters will hear the right words from the right old men, and, through the power of “by your own logic,” will awaken from their intense racial resentment as if from a dream. But words from the Ghosts of Respectable Politics Past won’t save us. There is no perfect messenger who, through the miracle of Civil Discourse, will somehow convince Nazis to stop being Nazis, or convince Republicans to impeach Trump, or convince people who supported Trump through the most openly racist presidential campaign in modern American history to turn their backs on him now.
The white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville are people who actively want to see black and brown bodies stacked up. For most of them, the only language they understand is violence. You aren’t going to change their minds with witty ripostes or paeans to civility. Perhaps some of the angry young men in Charlottesville on Saturday, or their fellow travelers around the country, may be reachable—look at Derek Black or Megan Phelps—but those conversions will require the direct intervention of people they respect. As a general rule, if you, the responsible and reasonable member of the mainstream, have any respect for a public figure, the people whose hearts you’re seeking to change don’t.
It’s easy to tweet one’s disgust at the president, or write a blog post dissecting the rot at the center of the American soul, or engage in a long back-and-forth Facebook comment war with that one douchebag you went to high school with. It’s much harder to show up and make yourself vulnerable in public, or to make Thanksgiving dinner awkward.
Words have an important place in activism, but they are not sufficient. Perhaps this sounds rich coming from me, a person who gets paid to write words on the Internet for a living. And it is indeed too often true that too many in my profession believe that the right combination of words could be a substitute for the actual work of politics. But no one will be dissuaded from hate until white allies actually work up the courage to start sacrificing our social capital for others’ liberation. Instead of wishing for the Super-Friends to come save us, we’d all be better off engaging in direct action. As Joe Hill taught us: Don’t mourn, organize.
Words can act as many things. They can be a balm in times of struggle. They can be a heartening call to action. They can be a great way to call Steve Bannon ugly. But no one person’s words will quell the rising tide of violent white terror in this country. No one can save us but us.