In Sacramento on Sunday, two white-supremacist groups, the Traditional Worker Party and the Golden State Skinheads, held a demonstration outside the California State Capitol “to make a statement about the precarious situation our race is in,” according to the Traditional Worker Web site. They meant the white race, not the Presidential one, but they cited as evidence the “brutal assaults” by protesters at Donald Trump rallies in California. The skinheads had gotten the right permits and advertised their demonstration long in advance, allowing local activist groups to organize a counterprotest, which was much larger than the rally itself. Many of the counterprotesters were there with a local “anti-Fascist” group called Antifa Sacramento. (One of the dark realizations of this event was that midsized American cities now have anti-Fascist organizations.) The counterprotesters carried signs that denounced “Nazi scum”; they chanted, “Nazi, go home.” Just a few minutes after the white nationalists arrived, the two groups began fighting. “They attacked each other without hesitation,” one member of the counterprotest told the Los Angeles Times. “It was a war zone.”

There were victims on both sides: a videographer filmed a young African-American man lying on the ground, blood soaking his pants, with someone else applying pressure to the wound. “The Nazis are after the black people,” someone told the Sacramento Bee. Photographers captured a group of skinheads, some bleeding from their heads, encircled by cops who were trying to prevent further violence. The spokesman for the city’s fire department told reporters that his officers, trying to treat wounded people on the ground, found “chaos enveloping them,” and had to battle to keep away others. Some of the images seemed from another era, or another place: a slight young woman, face covered by a black mask, waving a pride flag; protesters shoving a TV reporter and shouting “no cameras.”

As the story spread, the protesters were often described as neo-Nazis. “7 stabbed at neo-Nazi event outside Capitol in Sacramento” was the headline on the Los Angeles Times’ Web site; “At least 10 hurt at chaotic, bloody neo-Nazi rally at Capitol” was the Bee’s. Surely some of the skinheads would have called themselves neo-Nazis (it is hard to deny a swastika T-shirt), but the organizers were explicit about their purpose: the rally wasn’t about immigration or racial mixing; it was about Trump. The Traditional Worker Party’s chairman is Matthew Heimbach, a beefy young man who was videotaped shoving a black protester at a Trump rally in Kentucky, in March. Heimbach was not in Sacramento, but he told reporters that the demonstration was a reaction to the “radical leftists” who had disrupted Trump rallies, to show that there was a core of support that “would not back down.”

To say that you are a Nazi, in America, has always had vaguer connotations than saying that you support, for instance, the Ku Klux Klan. Nazism was never a force here—it never vented American grievances or buttressed an American political movement—so the extent to which American Nazism is meant literally, and not just as the darkest racial gesture imaginable, always requires some sorting out. Despite this lack of national grounding, the volume of Nazi material this year has grown alarmingly, and it has appeared not just around fringe movements but also in defense of a mainstream political campaign. Anonymous Trump supporters have sent reporters whom they believe to be Jewish images of gas chambers and of those reporters wearing yellow stars. White supremacists have been aggressive online, but in real life they’ve been scarcer. “There’s more of us than you think,” a man attending the annual white-supremacist conference American Renaissance told a reporter there last month. This would have seemed more ominous if the conference had drawn more than three hundred people.

There has been an echo of all of this across the Atlantic, where the British referendum to leave the European Union inspired swastikas and “Heil Hitler” salutes on stickers around Glasgow, and a visual reference to Nazi propaganda in a U.K. Independence Party advertisement. Tommy Mair, the fifty-two-year-old handyman who murdered the Labour M.P. Jo Cox, shouted either “Britain First,” the name of a far-right party supporting the Leave campaign, or “Put Britain first,” the broader sentiment behind it, as he shot and then stabbed her. Mair turned out to have sent small amounts of cash to the National Alliance, the largest American neo-Nazi group, for years.

The Nazi sympathies meant the Leave campaigners could distinguish themselves from Mair. The assassination suggested that people like him were a threat that needed management. “A troubled loner,” the Daily Mail insisted, who “supported far-right causes.” “A mentally ill loner,” the Sun confirmed. Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and a leader of the Leave movement, took the opportunity to explain that he himself was a “very moderate liberal conservative,” and that taking “control” of immigration was the only way to “spike the guns of the extremists and the people who are genuinely anti-immigrant.” It sounded like a hostage-taking, with Mair the man in the explosive vest: If you don’t give him what he wants, I can’t answer for what he’ll do.

Are we really talking about neo-Nazis, in 2016? We are and we aren’t. The words we have used for ideas that are impossible to tolerate—racism, white supremacy, misogyny—have seemed less acute in this campaign, because they are so present and so often discussed, and they have lost their specificity, too. On Monday, Trump accused Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who has been campaigning for Hillary Clinton, of being a racist. The spectre of Nazism has been a way to raise the stakes. For the sticker-posters in Glasgow and the pro-Trump trolls on Twitter, it has become a way to insist that they will not bend in their beliefs. For their opponents, it has provided confirmation that what is happening now is far darker than what has come before.

Trump has refused to condemn the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, signed up avowed white nationalists as convention delegates, and encouraged violence at his own rallies. Previously, the two major American political parties had shown themselves willing, in certain circumstances, to tolerate former members of the Ku Klux Klan, and Southern separatists, and racists and xenophobes. But Trump has let them loose, with no apology or contrition. These gestures—sometimes clumsy, sometimes horrifying—not only welcome the small core of avowed white supremacists into the campaign but also reassure the much larger body of voters, whose racial anxieties and grievances are perhaps not so fully theorized, that the normal strictures of political correctness and politeness no longer apply. They also set off his opponents. Trump has given the impression that the old line that separated the white supremacists from power was gone, that those thirty skinheads outside the California State Capitol mattered more than they actually did. And so an anti-Fascist coalition showed up, angry and feeling the urgency of their fight.

The scene on Sunday was dark, from any angle. Though there was violence on both sides, right-wing media outlets like Breitbart used it as an example of a purported swell in left-wing attacks on Trump supporters. The rally, in other words, became further evidence of the phenomenon it intended to highlight. The anti-Fascists kept calling their opponents Nazis, but the truth was both more mundane and more depressing than that. Whatever their beliefs, they were not there for Nazism. They were there for Trump.



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