'Tis the season, apparently. Pre-Thanksgiving travelers who clogged the busy Gate D10 at Seattle-Tacoma International were shocked — although maybe slightly less shocked than they would have been five years ago — to see a young-adult male passenger abruptly throw up a Nazi salute and begin a barely comprehensible antisemitic rant.
"Heil Hitler! Sieg Heil!" the man shouted, as fellow travelers either shook their heads or flipped on their iPhones. "Race war!" Airport police arrested the man, later identified as Nicholas Edward Letney, before he could board the Dallas-bound flight. As he was dragged off, he complained that his First Amendment rights were being violated, that "you're doing this because I'm a Nazi!"
In the past, the man's bizarre outburst could possibly be shrugged off as an aberration, a public meltdown during the most stressful time of the year. But in 2022, a highly overt boiling over of anti-Jewish hatred seemed to capture — if a German word can be considered appropriate here — the zeitgeist of a nation in which hate speech and political violence is breaking out from coast to coast, sometimes with deadly consequences.
The Seattle airport madness was separated by 3,000 miles but just a few days from a deeply disturbing moment in which a former U.S. president who remains his party's likely 2024 White House nominee broke bread not only with a hip-hop megastar — Ye, formerly known as Kanye West — who's rapidly becoming the public face of the new antisemitism but with Ye's Mar-a-Lago traveling companion. That was Nick Fuentes, perhaps America's loudest and most vile Holocaust denier.
And this Thanksgiving hate summit between Donald Trump, Ye, and Fuentes didn’t happen in a political vacuum. To the contrary, it occurred at a moment when right-wing hate talk and threats — increasingly with an AR-15 assault rifle strapped over the shoulder — are peaking, and when a young man who was incubated in a hothouse of political animus just shot up a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs and murdered five people.
In normal times, the horror that was perpetrated at Club Q would have triggered a flood of "thoughts and prayers" from some of the worst Republicans who'd sought to normalize political hatred toward the LGBTQ community during the 2022 midterms — but maybe also some actual heartfelt talk of dialing back the rhetoric. Although it was too little and far too temporary, we saw some of that in 2011 after the deadly attack that wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords — when Fox News stopped promoting the tea party and canceled Glenn Beck.
Just 11 years later, there was no such reckoning after Colorado Springs. To the contrary, the right was doubling down in its attacks against drag shows of the type that took place at Club Q, on the transgender community and against LGBTQ culture in general. Leading the charge was Fox News' most popular — and openly homophobic, since his college days — host, Tucker Carlson. The dead in Colorado hadn't yet been buried and Carlson followed his brief, tepid condemnation of the killer with an on-screen graphic "STOP SEXUALIZING KIDS!" and the shocking take that shootings will continue "until we end this evil agenda that is attacking children."
In Denver, TV reporter Ashley Michels tweeted that while she's covered other mass shootings — that comes with the territory in Colorado, sadly — she's never seen a reaction quite like this one, in which she's been flooded with tweets from viewers to "please stop talking about the stupid gay club shooting," and worse.
It’s true that we don’t know the exact motivation of the Club Q shooter — a young person with a muddled and confusing background — but we do know they were raised in a family that has openly embraced political violence and homophobia. The killer’s grandfather, an outgoing California GOP state lawmaker named Randy Voepel, compared the Jan. 6 insurrection to the American Revolution — “the first shots fired against tyranny.” The gunman’s dad, tracked down by a San Diego TV reporter, expressed no remorse for the nightclub massacre. Instead, he claimed to be relieved because he determined his child ... ”is not gay, so I said, ‘Phew.’ ... I am a conservative Republican.”
Indeed, he is.
It's clear that America is having a moment right now, and a deeply troubling one at that. Never in my lifetime — and I watched the tumultuous 1960s, albeit through the eyes of a child — has the hate speech been so open and so over the top, nor has the threat of political bloodshed felt so palpable. Yet it's important we understand what is really happening ... and why it's happening now.
The antisemitism, the homophobia, the violence ... this isn't the American right flexing its muscles out of strength. Quite the opposite. The forces of 400 years of white supremacy culture are like a wounded bear right now — lashing out, and extremely dangerous because its proponents know they are a seriously endangered species.
Is it any wonder that things have gotten so much crazier since Nov. 8, the date of the midterm elections? That was the day that the folks I dubbed in a recent column as "the Biden coalition" — college students who lined up hours to vote, suburban college grads who cared more about democracy than inflation, Black and brown voters who see the racism that still lurks behind the GOP's pitch to the working class — held together to give Democrats the upper hand in the 2022 midterms. It's that stunning defeat that's making the far right so batty, from the inner sanctum of Mar-a-Lago to Gate D10 at Sea-Tac.
In an insightful commentary on Twitter this weekend, the progressive writer and activist David Atkins noted that a series of defeats for the right — the 2018 midterms and Trump's 2020 defeat here at home, and growing global setbacks like Bolsonaro's recent loss in Brazil, as well as the loosening hold of conservatives on the wider culture and an increasingly multicultural and educated U.S. society — is sparking this dangerous reaction.
"As generational replacement continues and the failures of authoritarianism become more obvious, they will lose even harder," Atkins wrote. "The desperation for control will increase. Times will get more dangerous. But as long as the rest of society resists, we will win."
I share Atkins' long-term optimism, but also his sense of immediate peril. The majority that is defending democracy can be a powerful force but often a quiet one that needs to keep showing up — as it did for the election earlier this month — to fight off autocratic forces that are both louder and more willing to use force in immoral ways.
We are seeing this battle play out on a number of fronts. It's why we're watching Elon Musk burn $44 billion of his obscene fortune to wreck Twitter — the always imperfect social media battleground of ideas where progressives launched ideas like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter — as the face of a bro-dude tech culture now leaning into its white male privilege. It's why Trump — who tapped into rich, just-below-the-surface veins of racism and xenophobia to become president in 2016 — is now embracing far worse "-isms." It's why so many more Americans — the LGBTQ community, Jews and others — are feeling less and less safe.
In this alarming time, one of the scariest things I've read recently was a front-page piece in The New York Times headlined "At Protests, Guns Are Doing the Talking." The article tracked how demonstrators taking advantage of loose open carry firearms laws have brandished weaponry at at least 700 U.S. protests, some 77% of them on behalf of right-wing causes like restricting abortion or LGBTQ rights. It stated: "Deploying the Second Amendment in service of the First has become a way to buttress a policy argument, a sort of silent, if intimidating, bullhorn."
That American civil war that everyone has long feared is here — and it's an asymmetrical one. The silent majority — the ones who believe in things like tolerance and counting all the votes — are winning the conventional battle, at the ballot box. That should be a cause for celebration, but the enemies of democracy have many means at their disposal — members of the billionaire boys club of "anti-wokism" like Musk, the mullahs of an unaccountable lifetime judiciary granting rights to corporations and AR-15s but not to women, and of course the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the other armed foot soldiers of a fading patriarchy.
It's an asymmetrical war that the good guys will surely win — but only if they fight back. That means that journalists can't downplay or "both sides" this dangerous new reality, that political leaders need to center the fight for democracy every day, that Republicans must be pressed to condemn Trump over his antisemitism, and that the voters who showed up on Nov. 8 shouldn't dare think about going back to brunch. It's good to be in the majority, but this is no time for America's majority to remain a silent one.
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