Conservatives Must Face Up To The 'Alt Right, With Or Without Trump

18/08/2017 14:11 BST | Updated 18/08/2017 14:11 BST
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

This week, the so-called "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville ended in cold-blooded murder as a peaceful counter-protest was struck by a car, killing a protestor. Contrary to early speculation, the murderer was not an "anti-fa" member (who seemed notably absent), but a member of the so-called "alt-right". At times like this, America and the world would expect the President to take the initiative; unequivocally condemn the violence; lead the nation in facing up to an escalating spiral of violence that has now claimed a life. Instead, President Trump chose to condemn "both sides" for the murder. Ignoring for a moment that the counter-protest seemed peaceful - unlike previous "demonstrations" (to use the word loosely) against similar rallies, the President has shown an outstanding lack of leadership. The Charlottesville attacker was not some victim of circumstance whose actions can be pleaded down on account of political violence by other people in other places, but a cold-blooded murderer who should be condemned as we would any other murderer.

Trump's statement has rightly been condemned by many on the right, including both Bush Presidents, and rightly so. Just as conservatives condemn attempts to brush concerns about far-left anti-Semitism aside with the refrain "we oppose all forms of racism", and more recently Jeremy Corbyn's absurd suggestion that "all sides" are to blame for the crisis in Venezuela, they should condemn Donald Trump. Suggesting that "both sides" are to blame simply belittles what actually happened: a peaceful protestor was murdered in cold blood.

But it is not simply the murderer himself that called for condemnation, but the "alt-right" ideology which he represented - an ideology that many across the political spectrum, but particularly on the right, saw fit to respond to merely with mockery, perhaps believing that its adherents were simply too disunited; few in number; or generally pathetic to cause serious trouble, let alone death. Now that this illusion has been shattered, the right in particular must sit up and take stock - and make abundantly clear that, despite the group's best efforts, it will not be allowed to replace mainstream conservatism, just as many conservatives would expect moderate and reformist Muslims to speak out against radical Islam and demonstrate that their faith is not to be represented by the latter.

Perhaps for some, the "alt-right" were considered a lesser evil when pitted against their closest opposite - the so-called "anti-fascist" rioters who propose fighting fascism by dressing in black and beating up people who disagree with them; anyone who, in their infinite wisdom, they decree as "looking like a Nazi"; and indeed journalists who have even been attacked in the aftermath of Charlottesville, as well as when trying to cover previous "protests" such as in Berkeley. Such thinking is unprincipled in the first instance: if conservatives wish to be taken seriously in their calls to end political violence, you cannot condemn the aforementioned events while making excuses for a murderer.

It also overlooks one simple, and now glaringly obvious, fact: namely that the "alt-right" is a violent hate group. The enemy of one's enemy is still your enemy. Ben Shapiro knows this all too well, being a regular target of abuse by the alt-right for the twin crimes of criticising them, and of being Jewish. Indeed, what is notable about many of the flyers that were used to advertise the march is that the Confederate statue controversy was never mentioned; instead, Neo-Nazi and other anti-Semitic imagery and talking points were used - and the line-up of speakers, including white nationalist Richard Spencer; "Baked Alaska" (who has Tweeted about gassing Jews because they are allegedly over-privileged, and Tweeted images of Laura Loomer in a gas chamber); and Matthew Heimbach (head of the white nationalist Traditional Youth Network) should remove any lingering doubts about the nature of the movement. Indeed, there appears to be little "alt" about the "alt-right"; it is simply white nationalism; fascism; and sometimes overt neo-Nazism repackaged.

To the credit of many in the conservative movement - from Romney and McCain, to pundits like Ben Shapiro - they have stepped up to the plate and condemned the "alt-right" and the violence at Charlottesville. But the conservative movement must now fight more than simply a battle to attempt to end the glorification and normalising of political violence that has been occurring since Trump's election (a battle which, if responses to "antifa" violence from parts of the American left is anything to go by, will ultimately be unsuccessful however hard they try). It must fight a battle for its very soul - one which many seemed to ignore and hope it would go away on the back of Trump's initial popularity during the Presidential primaries, and eventual election victory. But it hasn't gone away, and Trump's response - coming from a White House advised by Steven Bannon, who boasted of turning conservative Breitbart into a "platform for the alt-right" - only throws this into stark relief. And with elections coming up next year, and Presidential primaries before long after that, it is a battle which must be prepared for now lest the conservative movement begin a not-so-slow side into irrelevance when placed alongside the "Trump train" and "alt-right".