Editor’s Note: Timothy Denevi is the author of the forthcoming book “Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism” (Oct. 30, PublicAffairs). The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Earlier this month, I attended the Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington, DC – a gathering of white nationalists to mark the anniversary of last year’s horrific violence in Charlottesville. Afterward, as a dense blue string of thunderstorms rolled in from the south, drenching everything, I found myself thinking about a quote by the late David Foster Wallace: “How do you promote democracy when you know that a majority of people will, if given the chance, vote for an end to democratic voting?”
It was from Wallace’s “Borges on the Couch,” an essay about, among other things, Argentinian politics under Juan Perón, 20th-century populism, and the beguiling fragility of open societies.
This is America in 2018. The United States is being led by someone who openly defends white supremacists. Who calls the free press “the enemy of the people.” Who abuses the power of his office to attack and silence his critics. Already, his campaign machinery for the next presidential election is kicking into gear. We’re about to come face-to-face with Wallace’s complication: To support Trump and similar politicians could very well amount to casting a ballot in favor of dismantling the core electoral safeguards that allow such votes to be cast in the first place.
The rally itself turned out to be a flop. In retrospect, the biggest controversy to emerge from the weekend of protests and counterprotests had to do with an event that took place two days before the rally was scheduled to begin.
On August 10, NPR broadcast the edited segments of an interview between Jason Kessler, the event’s 34-year-old organizer, and Morning Edition’s Noel King.
For nearly seven minutes, Kessler answered questions in a halting tone. “I’m trying to explain it to you and you’re not listening,” he replied when King called him out for claiming that his First Amendment rights had been suppressed (not a new tactic).
From there he grew less coherent. “You don’t even know anything about my rally,” he said. “You’re going based on left-wing rumor mills.”
To which King responded: “I’m citing the National Park Service, sir.”
Eventually, Kessler fell into a rant on the biologic superiority of white men and women, arguing that it was “just a matter of science” that “Hispanic people and black people” ranked lower in intelligence. In conclusion, he lamented, “There’s really no place where it’s OK for me to speak.”
Almost immediately, across social media and in traditional venues, both NPR and King came under heavy criticism and sharp questioning for conducting and airing the interview in the first place. What might they have done to provide more context? How should the independent press responsibly report on individuals like Kessler without supplying equal weight to their racist, hate-filled perspectives?
NPR said in a statement that interviewing people “does not mean NPR is endorsing one view over another.” On Twitter, King explained, “I’m a biracial woman… Morning Edition is a notably diverse team who thought long and hard before airing this.”
To be sure, these accusations and responses deserve attention. But considering our current political climate, in which outrage occludes so much else, it’s also important to refocus the discussion back on Kessler for an entirely different reason: what his fascism portends for the rest of us.
Jason Kessler is not a victim. Instead, in his convoluted play for legitimacy, he openly threatens the rights of American citizens he believes inferior. To put it bluntly: Any individuals who advocate for white supremacy in the mainstream media – seeking, in the process, to pervert our longstanding, if flawed, presumption of a shared objective reality into a blatantly false equivalency – are openly and knowingly participating in the destruction of democracy itself.
I know that sounds extreme, and fair enough. But let’s not split hairs. The overthrow of participatory democracy has been the overt goal of white supremacy from the very start. As such, for anyone advocating that ideology, racism is as much a means as an end, since it’s only when the inherent rights of minority citizens are completely revoked – to a degree more extreme than Jim Crow or even slavery – that America will finally become an autocratic government powerful enough to enforce the uncompromising purity these supremacists so desperately seek.
Which brings us back to the controversy over the rally and the NPR interview. How should the rest of the Republic (the majority of American citizens…hopefully), interpret and respond to far-right movements that, from the start, make no apologies about their intent to hijack the “the American idea,” as David Foster Wallace described it?
What we’re talking about now is really just another version of the quote from Wallace’s essay on Borges: that deep-seated contradiction that our slavery-condoning participatory democracy was intentionally founded upon, a gap between reality and idealism in which the necessary rationales for the Republic’s beginning and end—for its existence and destruction—have, over the last two centuries, managed to simultaneously reside.
It’s something that Charles P. Pierce, reflecting on the anniversary of Charlottesville, summed up perfectly: “I am so free that I insist that my freedom includes the freedom to deny you yours.”
In other words, we’ve been living from the very start with the dread that a rally like Kessler’s inherently evokes: a self-destruct button built into the dead center of the American steering wheel – at the exact spot we’d all expected the horn to be – and with each passing moment the likelihood of us pressing it, whether intentionally or not, increases. The flaw, after all, is right there in the design.
In the face of such odds, there are no easy answers, or even—and this is a distinct possibility—correct ones. Instead we’re left with a delimiting set of choices, the revolutionary paradox that, as Adam Gopnik writes, “you have to restrain your own freedom of self-expression in order to recognize the liberty of someone else.”
In one of his last published essays – from 2007, just ten months before his death – Wallace would go on to write: “Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing?…Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”
Last year, in response to the violence in Charlottesville, our 45th president used the tactic of false equivalency to compare Heather Heyer, the young woman murdered that weekend, to the sort of man who’d killed her. “Some good people on both sides,” he famously asserted to reporters in Manhattan. “I think there’s blame on both sides.”
He was, as is his style, being racist. But like Kessler, he was also articulating a means to an end.
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And now, as his standing worsens and the multiple investigations into his possible crimes accelerate, Donald Trump is running out of options. Can the American Idea survive the onslaught of racial demagoguery he’s likely to unleash, in the coming weeks and months, as a last-ditch effort to rally together the worst among us and save himself?
Whether we like it or not, Donald Trump is steering the country into the future. And as the rest of us watch on in disbelief, the odds that he’ll somehow avert disaster and keep his wandering hands to himself grow slimmer and slimmer with each passing day.