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The debate over punching white nationalist Richard Spencer in the face, explained

Some describe him as “a Nazi” and a “fascist” — and they argue that justifies violence against him. But that view defies decades of American and liberal norms.

Over the past week, liberals on social media have taken on an unusual debate: Is it okay to punch white nationalist Richard Spencer in the face?

The discussion came shortly after Spencer was actually punched in the face on camera by a protester during Donald Trump’s inauguration. Shortly before he was punched, Spencer denied that he was a neo-Nazi and said, “Yeah, sure,” when asked if he liked black people. Then a man approached Spencer off camera and attacked him.

The moment quickly spawned mixed reactions on social media, igniting a big debate about whether politically motivated violence against Spencer was okay: Are his white nationalist, racist views — which helped establish the self-described alt-right, a fringe far-right movement with racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic views — so deplorable and extreme that they justify violence? Or should norms against politically motivated violence stand, no matter the target, meaning this attack should be condemned?

That this is a conversation at all goes to show how extreme politics have gotten in recent years. The rise of Donald Trump — in which he shattered American norms, including with explicit calls for violence against protesters at his rallies (“I promise you I will pay for the legal fees”) — has warped what people consider acceptable. And the rising prominence of an open racist whom many consider a Nazi — and the movement he leads and named — is challenging decades of liberal views upholding free speech and peaceful public discourse above all. This is not normal.

To understand how we got to this debate in the first place, it’s crucial to understand who Spencer is. For many people, Spencer’s mere rise into the mainstream — to the point that he’s being interviewed and written about by major media outlets — shows that something has gone awry in American politics, given the nature of his racist views. And that has given way to extreme opinions about how to deal with Spencer and the broader resurgence of white nationalists in the Trump era.

Who is Richard Spencer?

“Terrible things were done to many different people during that terrible war,” alt-right leader (and sometime Trump supporter) Richard Spencer — pictured — has said. Linda Davidson / Washington Post / Getty

Spencer is a white nationalist who in 2008 coined the name for the alt-right. Although he has been writing about these issues for years, he only recently gained national fame due in large part to Trump. As Spencer put it to Mother Jones in a story published in October, Trump’s racist rhetoric on the campaign trail — calling immigrants criminals, saying Muslims should be banned from the US, arguing a judge should recuse himself from a case due to his Mexican heritage — gave legitimacy to much of the alt-right’s racist messaging.

“I think if Trump wins we could really legitimately say that he was associated directly with us, with the ‘R’ word [racist], all sorts of things,” Spencer said. “People will have to recognize us.”

This is at the core of what Spencer has been trying to do for years: legitimize white nationalism, which pushes the idea that the US should be a country for white people. That’s why Spencer has used vague, bland phrases — like “alt-right,” “identitarian,” and “National Policy Institute,” his name for his think tank — to add credibility to his views. And while Spencer has received a lot of pushback (many media outlets make it a point to note that he and the alt-right are racists), the fact is that he now regularly appears on mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Times — suggesting that he has succeeded in giving himself some sort of legitimacy in American politics.

A major point of contention for Spencer is whether he’s a Nazi. In the aftermath of him getting punched in the face on camera, a lot of people have described him as one. But Spencer insists he is not a Nazi, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, or part of another hate group. He has argued that he’s not a white supremacist but merely has a sense of white pride.

It’s hard to square those claims, however, with what Spencer has said in the past. He has argued that black and Latino people have lower average IQs than white people and are genetically predisposed to commit crimes — views that almost all scientists reject. And at times Spencer has explicitly argued that he believes white people are superior.

“I think there is something within the European soul that we haven’t been able to measure yet and maybe we never will,” Spencer told Mother Jones, “and that is a Faustian drive or spirit — a drive to explore, a drive to dominate, a drive to live one’s life dangerously … a drive to explore outer space and the universe. I think there is something within us that we possess and that only we possess.”

Still, there are substantial differences between Nazism and white nationalism. Nazism calls for the violent extermination of races that the Nazis deemed inferior. White nationalism calls for the establishment of a country exclusively for white people, even if that means forcing people of other races to move but not necessarily be killed — what Spencer once called a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”

Of course, when you propose ethnic cleansing in any form in America, you’re probably going to be called a Nazi — and maybe even attract some actual Nazis. At a National Policy Institute conference after Election Day, some members of the crowd gave a Nazi salute as Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”

Why some think violence is justified against dangerous views

Given Spencer’s extreme views and mainstream success, a lot of people have argued that extreme action is necessary to counter his dangerous message. That’s at the crux of why so many people are seemingly okay with politically motivated violence against Spencer, like punching him in the face.

Since much of the debate is on social media and particularly Twitter, much of the discussion has focused on memes and jokes.

But there is a serious element to this: At the very least, a lot of people seem totally unbothered at the thought of politically motivated attacks against people they think of as Nazis — a group that’s so extreme and evil from the perspective of everyday Americans that it merits extreme action to fight. In this way, that an explicitly racist person’s safety is considered a non-concern sends a message about how unacceptable bigoted views like Spencer’s are in America.

There is a political strategy to this. A key part of the anti-fascist movement — often called “antifa” — is that fascists can’t be allowed to have a platform at any cost. Under this view, the punch isn’t about simply feeling good about beating up a “Nazi” (even if it does feel good to some) but about robbing people like Spencer of a voice.

Antifa protesters are clear that this is a strategy explicitly to deal with fascism, not just any political view that you disagree with. Neo-Nazi, fascist, and racist views, the argument goes, are so extreme that they justify extreme tactics. The worry: If these views aren’t completely robbed of any kind of platform, they could gain legitimacy — and take advantage of liberal ideals like free speech to, ironically, promote their very illiberal messages. (Spencer has certainly gained some legitimacy among his followers by getting to appear on mainstream media outlets like CNN.)

“You’re talking about a guy who believes that America belongs to white people and white people alone,” Daryle Jenkins, executive director of the One People’s Project, which tracks right-wing groups, told me. “What are we going to come to the table with him about?”

Jenkins argued that people like Spencer are not innocent in this. When they describe forcefully relocating minorities to other places so white people can have a country to themselves, they’re calling for violence against minority groups. So it should come as no surprise, Jenkins argued, if people respond with their own violence.

There’s another issue in how we police civil discourse: That the punch is a controversy at all is to many another example of what’s often decried as “respectability politics.” The idea, which has long been a part of black political debates, is that if an oppressed or marginalized group just behaves better, they’ll get more respect from others — and therefore gain more legitimacy as a movement.

As Damon Young argued for the Root, this is not only ineffective but can also place an unfair burden on the people being oppressed or marginalized:

It shifts responsibility away from perpetrators (which in this context would be America) and places it on the victims (which in this context would be blacks in America). Instead of requiring the people and the institutions committing and propagating racist acts to change, it asks the people harmed by the racism to change in order to stop being harmed by the racism. Which is like getting shot and then getting blamed for standing in front of the bullet.

Respectability politics also asks people to mask some of their genuine, legitimate rage. After literal centuries of white supremacy in the US, a lot of people are angry that white nationalism could be on the rise again. Focusing so much on the actions and styles of the movement against Spencer and the alt-right, instead of the actual cause and message that leftist and liberal movements are pushing for, seems to many to miss the point.

This gets to a broader point about how much of liberalism is concentrated on keeping a specific kind of social order — one that’s focused on peaceful conversation and free speech even if it means talking with people with frankly abhorrent views. As Atlantic writer Vann Newkirk explained, “much of [liberalism] clearly favors law, order, and a suspension of disruption first, and then progress second.”

But fascists and other right-wing extremists can take advantage of this — because the idea that everyone deserves a voice means that fascists deserve a voice too, even if it helps legitimize views in the mainstream that are supposed to be intolerable.

Anthony Oliveira, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who’s studied some of the history of fascist movements, put it this way: “At some point, someone will propose a concentration of power and winnowing of the public voice, and the public sphere will let it articulate the means by which the public sphere can itself be dissolved.”

The punch goes against Americans’ longstanding rejection of politically motivated violence

On the other side, a lot of people have argued that politically motivated violence just has no place in America. This has been the standard US norm for decades (at least since the end of widespread lynchings and other anti-black violence) — and, frankly, it is odd that it is even up for discussion in US politics today.

Several prominent people, including longtime Captain America writer Nick Spencer (no relation to Richard Spencer), spoke out against the attack. Others, like comedian Sarah Silverman, shared more conflicted thoughts.

The argument here is simple: America has strong norms against violence in politics. We are supposed to settle our political issues through civil discussions, peaceful protests, and the vote. That’s one reason we revere people like Martin Luther King Jr. so much: They got a lot done — notably, including fighting racism — through peaceful means, exemplifying the kind of discourse we should strive for in politics. Punching someone, no matter how detestable his views are, should be out of the question.

“We want a civil society, where ideas are met with other ideas,” Randy Cohen, who formerly wrote the Ethicist column in New York Times magazine, told Vice. “We don’t want a society that encourages thuggish behavior, where if someone has politics different from yours, you get to beat them up. Aside from it just being morally wrong in itself to assault people, there’s the practical consideration that in a society where ideas are met with fists, one is as likely to be the punched as the puncher, and it’s no fun to be punched in the face.”

When I called Cohen, he was outraged this is even a question, saying he will talk about it no more beyond what he already told Vice and Newsweek.

Others argue that violence can hurt left-wing causes — and reinforce extreme right-wing views. When I asked about this, Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and editor of Dissent magazine, told me, “Because people on the left want to promote a vision of a nonviolent society governed by the ideals of democracy, equality, and cultural tolerance. And because non-leftists often see [the left] as a disruptive, lawless force. Violence tends to confirm that view.”

Kazin’s first point gets to an ideological contradiction among liberals who embrace punching Spencer and others classified as fascists: One reason that Nazis and fascists are seen by liberals as so evil is because they have used violence for political purposes.

As political scientist Sheri Berman explained for Vox, “[F]ascists embraced violence as a means and an end. Fascism was revolutionary: It aimed not to reform but to destroy the modern world — and for this, a constant and probably violent struggle would be necessary. Violence was not merely the method through which revolution would be accomplished; it was valuable in and of itself, providing supporters with powerful ‘bonding’ experiences and ‘cleansing’ the nation of its weaknesses and decadence.”

So to condemn Nazism and fascism at least in part because of their use of politically motivated violence and then turn around and punch someone in the face because he’s a Nazi — and bond over it online through memes and jokes — seems hypocritical.

After all, it wasn’t long ago that liberals widely praised the American Civil Liberties Union for defending the free speech rights of everyone, including groups like the Ku Klux Klan and actual neo-Nazis.

And it was just a few months ago when Michelle Obama campaigned for Hillary Clinton arguing, “When they go low, we go high.”

The fact that some liberals are backing away from that stance — one that pushed for free, peaceful public discourse above all — shows how extreme politics has gotten in a short period of time.

America is at a worrying moment in its political history

America’s political climate has hit a point not many saw coming.

Few expected the rise of Trump. From the moment he rode down his escalator to call Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists” to the point he said Muslims should be banned from the US to that time he was caught on tape saying he can “grab [women] by the pussy” and get away with it because he’s a celebrity, his campaign was always treated as a nightmarish joke that couldn’t really win the White House.

And Trump himself advocated for violence in his campaign rallies, telling supporters that he would pay for their legal bills if they punched anti-Trump protesters: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise.”

No one could break this anti-violence norm, it was widely believed, and get away with it. Liberals roundly condemned the possibility of a serious political figure embracing violence against peaceful protesters.

Then Trump won, dispelling many Americans’ views — which were particularly set by Barack Obama’s ascendance as the first black president — that a racist, sexist, and even violent message couldn’t win the presidency in 2016.

“We’re looking at a lot of tension building rapidly,” Jenkins of the One People’s Project said. “Everyone is getting frustrated at the fact that for the most part, white supremacists have more or less taken over the White House. We have fought them for 70 years to keep that from happening. And here it comes again.”

This has led to a sense that we are living in extreme times in American politics. And with people worried, they are trying to justify actions that they may have found abhorrent just a couple of years or even months ago.