News & Politics

Tribalism Ignites a Civil War on the Streets of Charlottesville

On Friday night, a group of self-avowed white nationalists with “Unite the Right” marched with tiki torches and violently attacked counter-protesters. On Saturday morning, these vile racists clashed with the violent agitators of the Left on the streets of Charlottesville. On Sunday, Black Lives Matter and antifa activists shouted down one of the leaders of “Unite the Right” as he attempted to disavow the violence of the day before.

Like in a scene from “Game of Thrones,” liberal activists chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as Jason Kessler tried to speak. They yelled, “Say her name!” referring, of course, to Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal who tragically lost her life when a car plowed into demonstrators on the street Saturday.

What is going on here? How did an American city descend into such chaos and anger?

Different people will give different answers. Liberals will say the “basket of deplorables” elected a racist, misogynistic bigot in Donald Trump. Trump supporters will say President Barack Obama dismissed their concerns for eight years, calling them “bitter clingers,” so Trump — despite his many faults — was a breath of fresh air.

These white nationalists aiming to “Unite the Right” will say their heritage — statues of the great leaders in the Civil War — is under attack. Antifa and Black Lives Matter will say these very nationalists honor the horrid legacy of American racism. Both sides feel marginalized and lash out in anger, and far too often, in violence.

President Donald Trump has come under attack for denouncing both sides of this tribal divide. Some (like The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin) have accused him of normalizing white supremacy by condemning “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”

Trump should have condemned the white nationalists more harshly than the other protesters — they started the violence and their actions killed someone. The white supremacy pushed by these groups is utterly vile and without excuse.

But Trump was right that hatred and violence emerged on both sides. Heather Heyer has been hailed as dying “while protesting against hate,” but there was violence and inexcusable behavior on both sides in Charlottesville this weekend.

The anger and violence in video after video from Charlottesville shows two sides striking at one another, two sides attempting to inflict harm on one another.

Americans should not forget that this is the latest in a string of political violence. Last year, a man inspired by Black Lives Matter killed five police officers in cold blood in Dallas, Texas. Just a few months ago, a politically motivated shooter targeted Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.) and other Republicans at a Congressional Baseball Game practice.

This isn’t the only recent instance of violence caused by white supremacy, either. The Charleston church shooting in 2015 poignantly comes to mind. America has a problem, and trying to determine who is most to blame will only make the problem worse.

Not to excuse the white supremacists in any way, but it is worth exploring the reasons why this group has felt increasingly marginalized in recent years. Calls for a national “conversation about race” have focused on whites as oppressors and minorities as victims in every case.

In this particular case, the white nationalists were protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who actually opposed slavery. These people are being told that even this most defensible of all Confederate figures must be condemned in their cultural consciousness. Again, there is no excuse for the way they reacted, but perhaps this is a legitimate complaint.

Indeed, part of the tragedy of the situation is that by identifying as white supremacists in defending this statue, they have played into the narrative that only racists support these statues.

Aristotle wrote that human beings are political by nature. For thousands of years, the basic social unit wasn’t the nation, the state, the college, or even the city — it was the tribe. In many parts of the world, tribal membership remains a cultural touchstone, and some tribes have lasting enmities against one another due to the color of their skin, or even the shape of their features.

America seemed to have moved beyond this, but both groups antagonizing one another has reinforced this all too human temptation to see the world in terms of “us versus them.”

Today’s white supremacy is just one part of a massive grievance complex which drives division, anger, and even violence. The history of humanity is replete with tribal wars — people murdering one another because their tribe has been victimized by the other tribe. Both sides have grievances and cannot see that indulging their desire for power or revenge will only lead to pain.

How can Americans break the cycle of tribalism? By championing the tenets of classical liberalism: that people have equal rights and dignity, that government should treat everyone equally, and that individuals acting freely and in peace can achieve the best good for the whole.

The answer to the horrid tribalism that hit Charlottesville this weekend isn’t to escalate this to another debate about Left versus Right. The answer is a dedication to the idea that all men and women are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

America will be united only by championing the things America truly stands for. Activism that descends into tribalism is counterproductive to the unity and wellbeing of this country. In Charlottesville, both sides were guilty. Americans must unite not against one side or the other, but for liberty and justice for all.

The Left has tried to use this event as proof that Trump and the Republican Party have inspired racism. The Right’s natural response is to say the Left is just as guilty. Instead, Americans should denounce these particular individuals, let the cops do their jobs, and stop the cycle of increasing tribalism and blind anger at the other side.