To discuss the horrific events in Charlottesville this weekend, and the grotesque response to them from President Trump, I spoke by phone with Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at the New Yorker and a professor of journalism at Columbia University. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate should be used interchangeably, what Woodrow Wilson has in common with Donald Trump, and why Republican condemnation of Trump’s response shouldn’t get anyone too optimistic about the future of the GOP.
Isaac Chotiner: Is there another moment in recent American history that reminds you of the one we are in now, with high-level sanctioning or support of this insanity?
Jelani Cobb: There are a few. George Wallace is the one people think about. There’s the Southern Strategy and Nixon, to see just how they could cobble together this coalition that included Southern whites around issues of race. Even Reagan, with the nod-and-wink thing he did in Philadelphia, Mississippi during the 1980 campaign, where he came to the place where [civil rights activists] Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been killed and said he believed in states’ rights.
But really those parallels are more superficial. The most striking parallel I see to this time was almost exactly a century ago, on the verge of the United States’ entry into World War I. There had been an upsurge for the preceding two decades of anti-immigrant fervor. It had been driven by the sentiment that people were taking jobs and bringing crime, that they were not fit for democracy—all these concerns. It was directed at Jews, Italians, the Irish, and certainly the Chinese. It was expressed in popular culture and enjoined with American racism in a way we find very familiar now. In fact, the historian Linda Gordon has a book that just came out on this, called The Second Coming of the KKK.
If you look at the circumstances that facilitated the emergence of the KKK as a really formidable organization, it was everything we are seeing now: anti-immigrant fervor, economic concerns, ideas about maintaining white supremacy, that white men were being displaced. And it culminated in the Immigration Restriction Act, which sounds very similar to what the Trump administration wants to make, to get more of the people you say are like you and being outnumbered.
At that point, they also received sanction from Woodrow Wilson, when he screened The Birth of a Nation in the White House and allegedly said that it was like history written with lightning. So there was sanction for these views in 1915 and 1916 and 1917 from the highest offices in the land.
Tom Scocca had a tweet that said, “The depressing reason we use ‘Nazi’ to refer to our domestic racist goons is that it’s the one pose they take that’s universally rejected.” What are your feelings about labeling the white nationalist or neo-Confederate movement as Nazi?
Yeah, I think that Nazi is the only unqualified evil, or at least has been the only [one] unqualified, because we have had a very mealy-mouthed ambivalence about the Confederacy, and we have tried to nuance it and make all those contextual claims to complicate the story of an alliance that was fighting for the preservation of slavery. And so when we say “Nazi,” we summon the idea of the United States’ moral victories, and military ones. We are not personally implicated. This country doesn’t feel personally implicated in the evils of Nazism. We are able to denounce it with a clear conscience.
I think some of these people self-identify as neo-Nazis and apply Hitler’s ideas. There are various references, not to mention, of course, to the swastika. So that’s part of why it comes up. I also think part of the confusion around terms is partly because people were inclined to use the euphemism “alt-right.” The catch-all is white supremacy but there are various elements of it.
Do you think it is valuable or misleading to use neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate interchangeably?
Here’s why I think it’s useful to talk about them in conjunction: The one good thing that has come out of this is that it has demolished the arguments about the Confederacy being about “heritage not hate.” If that’s the case, then why Nazi and skinhead movements? Why do these movements internationally fly the Confederate flag if there is no connection? The other thing that I think about, historically, is that there is that nexus. Hitler established a committee to study Jim Crow laws and see if they were applicable to the policies they wanted to enact towards Jews in Germany. There is a book that just came out about this by James Q. Whitman called Hitler’s American Model. There were legislative connections between Jim Crow and Nazi policies toward Jews.
How do you think people on the left reacted to this demonstration? Before this weekend, there had been one school of thought that said, “ignore them—they just want attention.”
I think that at one point it was prudent to ignore those movements, because they were looking for counterprotests for attention. We are past that point now. What we saw this weekend was a debut. If you saw all these people marching together, and we know about the esprit de corps that comes with people marching together in a regimented fashion. They get high off that. They have drawn first blood and taken the life of one of their opponents. What would a movement like that do except look for something bigger now? From what we know of history—
Nazis don’t respond to appeasement?
Right, exactly. So I think this would prompt them to do something bigger and maybe cause more casualties. We are at a much more dangerous point than we were 72 hours ago.
Right. I was thinking that if we lived in a world where the president, before the rally, had disavowed and condemned them, then maybe it’s worth ignoring them. But when this has official support or sanction from the White House, then it’s hugely important.
I mean, at this point, if he did, and I saw the statement the White House put out Sunday: measuring the reluctance with which he does so …
Yeah the ship has sailed, and did long ago, because our president is sympathetic to white nationalism.
What have you made of the responses from Republican officeholders in the past 24 hours?
What we have become accustomed to in these last seven months or, God, eight months of Trumpism. Is it eight months now?
Jesus. We have been accustomed to the milquetoast references to being “troubled” or “disturbed.” It was striking to see a spectrum say he needed to state it was white supremacy, all the way to Orrin Hatch saying his brother died fighting Nazis. There are still people who remember Nazism. It still does strike a nerve somewhere.
What does it make you think about the future of the GOP as a white-nationalist party going forward?
The thing that is complicated about this response is that you just don’t know what it means. Nikki Haley spoke evocatively and passionately during the campaign about the demagogic claims he was making about people, and her parents as immigrants. And then she turned around and accepted a post. There is a real question of whether this will culminate in anything beyond statements.