When a hundred members of the white supremacist Patriot Front marched through Boston this weekend, they carried a banner announcing their hope to “Reclaim America.”
A desire to take back what has been lost — or, worse yet, stolen — finds frequent expression not only on the fringes of the American Right, but in its mainstream.
Donald Trump built an entire presidential campaign on the idea when he promised to “Make America Great Again.”
The slogan’s “again” tells the story of a political and cultural fall from which the nation needs rescue.
The premise of Trump’s argument — and that of the Patriot Front’s, too — is that the nation has been lost to an undeserving Other from whom it must be taken back in the name of its rightful beneficiaries.
It’s the same idea that underlaid the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville at which white nationalists marched with torches while chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” (They also killed 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer.)
When given the chance to condemn the rally, Trump demurred and would say only that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the protest. His failure to forthrightly condemn white nationalists constituted an implicit endorsement of their message.
And why wouldn’t he endorse them? Trump’s campaign and presidency were built on the same core belief as that of white supremacists like those who gathered in Charlottesville: Sinister forces — the Other — have seized and ruined the country, and the nation has to be taken back from these forces so we can be great again.
Trump closed out his presidency with a similar endorsement. When asked during a September 2020 presidential debate if he was willing to condemn the Proud Boys, a collection of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, he declined and instead told them to “stand back and stand by.”
On January 6, 2021, we saw the results of this kind of rhetoric.
Violence like that at the Capitol does not grow from uncultivated ground. As Italian writer Umberto Eco observed in a piece on “Eternal Fascism” published in the New York Review of Books in 1995, “behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.”
In the Patriot Front’s banner, and in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, and in the various iterations of white nationalism articulated by groups like the Proud Boys, there exists a common “way of thinking and feeling.” It asserts that some are deserving of the nation’s bounty while others are not, and it claims that the rightful inheritors of the country can and should cast out the interlopers to take back what is rightfully theirs.
This is the rhetoric of violence, and it’s found a place in the GOP’s campaign to win seats on the Charlotte City Council in this month’s election.
Councilman Tariq Bokhari, who takes credit for organizing a group of GOP municipal candidates running as “the Slate,” exhorted his fellow Republicans at the state convention in May, “We cannot give up on our front lines, in our urban cities where these battles are raging.”
He called on the GOP to “descend upon the front lines of this state and tak[e] one of our urban centers back from them.”
Bokhari frothed at cheering delegates, “Will you stand with us?! Will you stand with us now?!”
Like the Patriot Front’s banner in Boston, Bokhari’s rhetoric is premised on reclaiming power for those who are entitled to it. His “us” requires a “them,” and they are the Other.
The Slate also uses violence-tinged language in its fundraising efforts: The group has established the “Urban Defense League” as a fundraising clearinghouse, and the name reenforces the idea that there exists an Other from which the city must be defended.
This sort of rhetorical violence — “a way of thinking and feeling,” as Eco put it — helps pave the way to actual violence, which one of the Slate’s candidates is now using to raise money.
David Merrill will hold a “Pistols at 10 Paces” campaign fundraiser this month at Point Blank Range in Matthews. (The name of the event alludes to the conduct of a duel. If Merrill is one of the participants in this rhetorical duel, who is the other at whom he is aiming his gun?)
The fundraiser’s advertisement is all fun and games: “We will have a ‘March-Madness’ style tournament with candidates, cops, and citizens in competition to see who is the best shooter. Enjoy food, beverages, and participate in a fun, competitive shooting tournament,” the event’s flyer announces. (A little less fun: The range’s website features a link to join the extremist NRA, which has played a uniquely harmful role in creating and perpetuating America’s gun-addled madness.)
Put aside the callousness and tone-deafness of a gun-themed political fundraiser in a country whose classrooms were once again recently flooded with the blood of slaughtered children.
Whenever a candidate for public office is shooting guns to collect campaign contributions — an act that necessarily juxtaposes politics and violence — something is terribly wrong. This is especially so when the candidate’s campaign and political party are animated by rhetorical visions of an Other that deserves to be vanquished.