The Company They Keep
The pro-Trump right is angry about “guilt-by-association.”
It seems so unfair. How can proximity make someone guilty? If I go to a Yankees game and the guy next to me promotes vaccine conspiracy theories, am I obliged to denounce him, lest I become infected by his contemptible ideas? That seems silly.
But what if I’m speaking alongside an anti-vaxxer at a medical conference? Should I walk out? Or at least make clear to those in attendance that I reject those views? Suddenly the question gets a little tricky, doesn’t it?
Darren Beattie, a former White House speechwriting aide who recently joined Florida Republican Matt Gaetz’s congressional office, is trying to pass off his white nationalist ties as the more innocent variety. One problem: the White House fired him last August, following a CNN report on his participation in a conference featuring several open white nationalists.
When the Washington Examiner website reported the hire, its headline accurately noted Beattie “was ousted from the White House over ties to white nationalism.” He expressed great offense, taking to the Examiner to decry “these pointless smears.”
This is becoming a common theme on the MAGA right.
Iowa Rep. Steve King is known for playing fast and loose with Nazis and white nationalists on his Twitter feed. When King retweeted white supremacist Mark Collett, a frequent guest on David Duke’s podcast, King defended himself by arguing Collett’s tweet itself was inoffensive. “I think it’s really unjust for anyone to assign the beliefs of someone else, because there’s a message there among all of that… I mean, it’s the message, not the messenger.”
But then, this wasn’t a one-time incident. Remember that King endorsed Faith Goldy for Toronto mayor. And appeared with far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders. And refused to answer a question about whether “a white society is superior to a nonwhite society”? Sooner or later, you lose the benefit of the doubt.
Or take the “Unite the Right” marchers in Charlottesville, and the stubborn insistence by the president—and conspiracy-minded defenders such as Dilbert-creator Scott Adams — that he did not call Nazis and white supremacists “very fine people.” (I don’t want to continue to bang my head against this wall; Robert Tracinski has written the definitive piece on the subject.)
Many called the president’s post-Charlottesville comments, which he doubled-down on last week, “an unforced error.” Why won’t he condemn everyone who marched in a white nationalist-organized rally and move on? Is he digging in simply because he can’t admit he was wrong?
Maybe. But perhaps there’s another explanation.
What if the pro-Trump right is trying to get us to accept certain associations in an attempt to carve out room for some “very fine people”—their fellow travelers in a right-wing “identitarian” movement.
You might not wear a hood. Your Twitter feed might not be littered with anti-Semitic references. You might not go on white supremacist podcasts. But it needs to be okay to be around those kinds of people.
Think I’m wrong? Then why has there been a determined effort to euphemize, downplay, or even deny the existence of these extremists?
Defending his presence at the white nationalist-tied H.L. Mencken conference, Beattie wrote “to be sure, there were a few in attendance who had expressed politically incorrect views.”
Politically incorrect views? That’s . . . one way of describing them.
The H.L. Mencken Club bills itself as “a society for the independent right,” and celebrates the eponymous commentator for “question[ing] the egalitarian creed and democratic crusades.” It “seek[s] to change perceptions and attitudes by discussing ideologically neglected topics that few now dare to address.”
These are ideological bad boys, reveling in the transgressive frisson of sharing what are absolutely “politically incorrect” opinions. Among their past speakers, proudly listed on the group’s “About” page, are:
- Peter Brimelow, founder of the white nationalist commentary site VDare;
- John Derbyshire, a VDare blogger who was fired from National Review for expressing racist views (and would later write that “white supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with”);
- Libertarian VDare writer Sean Gabb, who has made advocacy on behalf of the white nationalist British National Party a hobby-horse;
- Ilana Mercer, author of Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa and columnist for Jared Taylor’s “race realist” American Renaissance website (and, surprisingly, Townhall);
- Srđa Trifković, an author of several critical books on Islam whose side gig is testifying on behalf of Serbian war criminals at the Hague;
- and Robert Weissberg, whose contributions to a National Review blog ended when editors learned of “an American Renaissance conference where he delivered a noxious talk about the future of white nationalism.”
Anyone who attends one of these gatherings ought to know what they’re getting into.
And funnily enough there is no mention of H.L. Mencken Club co-founder Richard Spencer on the group’s about page.
Perhaps there’s a line even for individuals who pride themselves on being politically incorrect.
Beattie took to Twitter over the weekend to argue that the terms “white nationalist,” “white supremacist,” and “racist” were meaningless slurs “against the patriots of Middle America.”
Accordingly, terms like "white nationalist" "white supremacist" and "racist" should ALWAYS be referenced in quotation marks with the appropriate descriptor "so-called."
— DarrenJBeattie (@DarrenJBeattie) April 28, 2019
But Beattie and his defenders need to decide which argument they’re making. If the views of the kinds of people who show up to speak at the Mencken Club are no big deal—are just the view of Middle American patriots—then why is it a smear to note the association? Beattie et al should be proud to rub shoulders with Middle American patriots like Brimelow and Derbyshire and Weissberg at a group co-founded by “Unite the Right” organizer Richard Spencer.
And there is an association. Or at least admiration. On his personal Twitter account, Beattie retweeted Kimball’s endorsement of white nationalist Faith Goldy and has “liked” Tweets from the white nationalist VDare Twitter account and from white nationalist podcast host Nick Fuentes. As of April 30, 2019, he follows all three accounts (out of a well-curated group of 65 total feeds).
One gets the sense that Beattie’s real objection isn’t that he’s offended by being tied to these very fine people. He’s just angry that other people noticed.
It wasn’t always this hard for Republicans to relegate the bigots and racists back to the fringes from whence they came. When Klan leaders in Georgia announced their support for Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984, the president was unsparing in his denouncement.
Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse…
The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.
Compare this to candidate Trump’s cagey reaction when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked if he would “unequivocally condemn David Duke and say you that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election.”
Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.
I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.
Trump would eventually “disavow” the support of white nationalists, but even that seemed to be calculated, an attempt to distance himself without causing too much offense. And his delay at least suggested to these groups that he might secretly be with them.
Or at least, that’s the message they took from it. After the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, President Trump’s comments were, as the Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes reported, “positively celebrated” by the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer: “No condemnation at all … When asked to condemn, [Trump] just walked out of the room… God bless him.”
Conservatives should think about the precedent they’re setting by tolerating allies who are, at best, white nationalist-adjacent. What should be the consequence for a Democratic politician who retweets Islamic radicals or anti-Semites? Can “very fine people” participate in a rally where marchers chant “Death to Israel!” so long as they can claim they’re just protesting Likud’s settlement policies?
But practical considerations aside, conservatives would do well to consider why so many on the pro-Trump right end up associating with white nationalist or “identitiarian” movements. Rosie Gray’s Buzzfeed profile of former Breitbart writer Katie McHugh is a disturbing story of one such person’s descent from right-wing “respectability” to open white nationalism.
Why does this keep happening on the MAGA right? It’s a complicated question, but part of the answer may be that the most effective case for Trump has been, to this point, a negative one. It admits that there is something to the criticism that Trump is crude and corrupt, but counters that the alternative is far worse. The catchphrase “But Gorsuch!” is the end of a mad lib: you fill in the first part of the sentence with whatever you don’t like about Trump, and finish it with a powerful, decisive point in his favor.
That might work for establishment Republicans, but a successful movement needs true believers. Foot soldiers. Maybe even some “very fine people.”