On ________ Americans

The Wall Street Journal:

As ever in this age of Donald Trump, politicians and journalists are reducing the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday to a debate over Mr. Trump’s words and intentions. That’s a mistake no matter what you think of the President, because the larger poison driving events like those in Virginia is identity politics and it won’t go away when Mr. Trump inevitably does.

The particular pathology on display in Virginia was the white nationalist movement led today by the likes of Richard Spencer, David Duke and Brad Griffin. They alone are to blame for the violence that occurred when one of their own drove a car into peaceful protesters, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.

The Spencer crowd courts publicity and protests, and they chose the progressive university town of Charlottesville with malice aforethought. They used the unsubtle Ku Klux Klan symbolism of torches in a Friday night march, and they seek to appear as political martyrs as a way to recruit more alienated young white men.

Political conservatives even more than liberals need to renounce these racist impulses, and the good news is that this is happening. The driver has been charged with murder under Virginia law, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened a federal civil-rights investigation and issued a statement condemning the violence: “When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated.” Many prominent conservatives also denounced the white-nationalist movement.

Mr. Trump was widely criticized for his initial statement Saturday afternoon that condemned the hatred “on many sides” but failed to single out the white nationalists. Notably, David Duke and his allies read Mr. Trump’s statement as attacking them and criticized the President for doing so.

The White House nonetheless issued a statement Sunday saying Mr. Trump “includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups” in his condemnation. As so often with Mr. Trump, his original statement missed an opportunity to speak like a unifying political leader.

Yet the focus on Mr. Trump is also a cop-out because it lets everyone duck the deeper and growing problem of identity politics on the right and left. The politics of white supremacy was a poison on the right for many decades, but the civil-rights movement rose to overcome it, and it finally did so in the mid-1960s with Martin Luther King Jr. ’s language of equal opportunity and color-blind justice.

That principle has since been abandoned, however, in favor of a new identity politics that again seeks to divide Americans by race, ethnicity, gender and even religion. “Diversity” is now the all-purpose justification for these divisions, and the irony is that America is more diverse and tolerant than ever.

The problem is that the identity obsessives want to boil down everything in American life to these categories. In practice this means allocating political power, contracts, jobs and now even salaries in the private economy based on the politics of skin color or gender rather than merit or performance. Down this road lies crude political tribalism, and James Damore’s recent Google dissent is best understood as a cri de coeur that we should aspire to something better. Yet he lost his job merely for raising the issue.

A politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways on the right and left. The extremists were on the right in Charlottesville, but there have been examples on the left in Berkeley, Oakland and numerous college campuses. When Democratic politicians can’t even say “all lives matter” without being denounced as bigots, American politics has a problem.

Mr. Trump didn’t create this identity obsession even if as a candidate he did try to exploit it. He is more symptom than cause, though as President he now has a particular obligation to renounce it. So do other politicians. Yet the only mission of nearly every Democrat we observed on the weekend was to use the “white supremacist” cudgel against Mr. Trump—as if that is the end of the story.

It isn’t, and it won’t be unless we confront this underlying politics of division. Not long ago we were rereading Justice Clarence Thomas’s prophetic opinion in Holder v. Hall, a 1994 Supreme Court ruling on dividing voting districts by race.

“As a practical political matter,” he wrote, “our drive to segregate political districts by race can only serve to deepen racial divisions by destroying any need for voters or candidates to build bridges between racial groups or to form voting coalitions.” Writ large, Justice Thomas was warning that identity politics can destroy democratic trust and consent.

Or put a different way 50 years ago …

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