This weekend the National Policy Institute, a “think tank” spawned in a hysterical bid for respectability from the white supremacist, Nazi-idolizing, cool-with-fascism segment of the US population, held a conference in the Reagan Building in Washington, DC. That happened. They spent all of Saturday giving speeches on the vision of the white ethnostate, their desire for a moratorium on immigration, the imminent threats to the grandeur of the European people. In the middle of the day they called a press conference, answered questions for two hours, the result of which was a slew of temperate and well-rounded ruminations from national news outlets on the major points of white supremacist policy proposals, which celebrity guests were in attendance, what they wore, what they ate and drank.
Conspicuously absent from most of these reports, or glossed over in a few sentences, is the presence of nearly twice as many protesters as white supremacists, at each event the conference convened. On Friday, when the fascists gathered to eat Italian food and tweet out photos of themselves Heil-ing Hitler from inside Maggiano’s Little Italy in Friendship Heights, protesters first stormed the restaurant, attempted to take over the second-floor event room where the Nazis were holed up, and then set up a raucous dance party on the sidewalk outside for the duration of the evening. (Also important to note, in the initial confrontation a protester managed to spray “liquid farts” all over Richard Spencer, possessed Ken-doll-in-chief of the NPI, causing him to continue the evening in the bizarre garb of a waistcoat but no shirt, like a stripper midway through a chillingly unerotic dance routine.)
On Saturday, with the conference ensconced within the difficult-to-assail establishment of the Reagan Building (also a popular location for orthodontists’ conventions and poetry slams) the protesters formed a roving rhythmic mass around the building’s exterior, rattling the windows, running down conference attendees when they found them, keeping up a constant chant of “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.”
I was in the middle of both protests. I can say that these things are as vital as they are inherently unsatisfying. The amount of energy whipped up to sustain hours in the streets finds no sufficient outlet in yelling at the stony walls of a fortress. The nationalists inside were insulated from our massing by several layers of atriums and corridors, and strangely none of them decided to spend their midday break getting fresh air. Even if they had, the Reagan Building has six above ground entrances and several below ground, it was impossible to monitor them all with enough thoroughness. The understanding that infrastructure itself was arrayed against us could not have been felt more clearly. And yet, where else could we be. What degree more hideous would the world grow if this event passed unchallenged?
As Saturday afternoon became evening the wind took on a knife edge, and Food Not Bombs showed up with bread and hot soup. We ate huddled against the immense walls of the same building that had thwarted us. We exchanged stories with people we had never met before. But there’s plenty written to romanticize the camaraderie of direct action; I do not wish to add to that in this moment. Suffice to say that the people in this weekend of resistance formed as complete a story as those fuckers within the building, polishing the turd of their paranoid fantasies. The protest was not only an accessory or a reaction to the conference, it was a narrative in itself.
Yet look back to the stories that are being put out to the world. NPR chose to characterize the event as, “About 300 people — split nearly evenly between conference attendees and protesters of the conference outside.” The Atlantic is doing a documentary on Spencer and noted the “cheers, applause, and enthusiastic Nazi salutes” from attendees, and declined to mention resistance at all. Watch the gears of normalization grind into motion. See how inexorably they turn. The events of this weekend provide a neat encapsulation of how establishment journalism, the core crafter of narrative within the US, is primed to bring white nationalism into mainstream discourse. It was created to do exactly that. And yet, in this moment of blatant unreality, the seams are beginning to show.
Normality is flailing to assert itself even more desperately than usual. For the clarity brought through exaggeration, we can look at the response from Maggiano’s Little Italy, the day after fascists and antifascists shook up their restaurant (and gave one group of teenage girls the most memorable birthday party of their lives). Maggiano’s initial statement was a blatant bid for normality. It attempted to contextualize the dinner by noting that Maggiano’s has also hosted “Malia Obama’s high school graduation party, a community breakfast meeting for Donald Trump in Chicago, and a private dinner for Bernie Sanders in Philadelphia.” In this narrow, specific context it is clear that an attempt to equate a gathering of militant racists with Malia’s graduation party is at best farcical, at worst a horrific bid to round up ethnic cleansing and forced sterilization within the bounds of acceptable behavior.
Of course, in the case of the conference this weekend, Maggiano’s must have realized this because that initial response was pulled in less than a day, replaced by a slightly less weaksauce insistence that “we were not aware that NPI was dining with us or what the group represents,” (ya did) along with an assertion that profits from the night would be donated to the Anti-Defamation League (save the tea-sipping on this for another essay).
Look, white supremacists need not be out forcibly sterilizing people every minute of every day. They also sleep and shit and get their hair cut and go to dinner. Just because a white supremacist is engaged in an act of self-care or capacity-building in a particular moment does not mean that act does not actively support their efforts at oppression, and as such must be shut down as vigorously as any open display of violence. Fuck you, Maggiano’s. We called you ahead of time to inform you of the nature of the conference, you replied that as long as they acted “civilized” you would not kick them out. You knew full well what you were supporting. You positioned them within your walls and us without. We see what side you’re on.
But it’s not particularly productive or energizing to call out one mediocre pasta palace, no matter how many creative epithets I get to use. A broader analysis: restaurants are businesses. Businesses as part of the establishment seek to protect what is established. The system perpetuates itself, justifies itself, guards itself. It is much easier to align yourself with the system than to try and tear down its walls. This is why respectability politics hold so much allure. These particular militant reactionary racists took a clever gamble to align themselves with the establishment and in doing so became much more difficult to access, much less dislodge. Now they have a chance not only to align with the system but dominate it. They can do this because their vision does not actually demand any dramatic restructuring of society, only a craven reshuffling of who sits at the top.
Other efforts at normalization, similar in shape though grander in scale, happen all around us all time. They are harder to pick out because they do not involve the colorful trappings of the absurd—Tila Tequila, Italian food, liquid farts, a contingent of protesters called Twerk for Justice—and thus more complex to eradicate. Capitalism is normalized, consumer activism is normalized, faith in authority is normalized. Normalization is normalized. A free and objective press is one of the core institutions of our civil society, no matter how that institution daily reports on its own erosion. An objective press is predicated upon the idea of consensus reality. The concept of certain events being ‘newsworthy’ carries the implication that others are not. We must have a ‘normal’ if we are to form an opinion on the strange.
Yet in the past three weeks the mechanisms of normalization feel a little more—evident than they have before. The efforts of media outlets-of-record to conduct measured reports on Richard Spencer’s policy ideas, Ivanka Trump’s diplomacy strategies, just don’t go down quite so easy. Not that faith in the pillars of journalism has collapsed, far from it, but cracks have opened up. The lunacy is shining through. People who I’ve never before heard question the establishment are using words like unreal, surreal, bad dream, dystopia. The world of fantasy and fiction is seeping into mundane daily life.
I am making the case that the idea of consensus reality, of a collective agreement on what counts as normal life and how we should seek it out, is no longer interesting or relevant or useful or safe. It has never been any of these things but it’s definitely not now. Such an assumption is always actively cultivated by some and forced onto others. This idea of normality is what allows the system to erase the stories of countless defiant people throughout centuries, to construct borders and violently segregate people within them, to cage and brutalize millions in the name of order and law. It places violent bounds on what we are capable of dreaming, and thus how we are capable of acting, and thus the ways in which we might challenge the people who create such bounds.
Maybe we should take the opportunity to throw it out. This is hard, I know. It is one of the hardest things you can ever do. I understand, I truly do, that the forty-hour work week wears you down, the loneliness is crushing, consumerism is exhausting, you are looking for any little thing to make life easier. And to sigh and sit back and say, “let’s wait and see,” to peruse the naked snarls of fascism reported in the same font that has also conveyed trade deals and TV recaps, to let your eyes drift slightly out of focus, would of course be very, very easy.
But remember those white nationalists in their cozy conference hall. In an interview, Richard Spencer laid out the following: “The ideal of a white ethnostate, and it is an ideal, is something that I think we should think about in the sense of what could come after America. It’s kind of like a grand goal. It’s very similar to in the 19th century when the left had ideals of communism. It was you know, politics is the art of the possible. But philosophy is kind of the art of the impossible, so to speak. So that they were imagining a new society. And at some point they brought it into being.”
The opposition to a violent, alienating world must continue in the streets, every moment, everywhere, but it cannot end there. This is also, as Spencer makes clear, a fight for the imaginary. The white supremacists understand the power of the impossible, the visionary—they have fed this ideal to their people for decades and now suddenly are poised at its realization. If they can do it, so must we.
For decades we have relied on a certain set of institutions to tell our stories for us. We have believed them. Suddenly they prove inadequate. To face a world struggling to cope with unreality and hand them only the apparatus of normalization is a sad disservice. How bereft of vision our institutions have grown. The tools we rely on—giving context, getting quotes, providing measured descriptions, seeking out alternate points of view—are no longer adequate to describe the world we inhabit. Not only are they inadequate, they actively distort events as they unfold and confer legitimacy on those who deserve denunciation. We must learn to tell stories for ourselves. We must use analysis and investigation and visioning and imagining all together, to wrest a narrative of meaning back into our own lives. Upon this meaning, perhaps, we can build an impossible ideal rooted in a capacious dream rather than a paranoid delusion.
Do not confine your vision to the language that has been handed down to you. It will not serve. It cannot adequately encompass the surreality of our present circumstances, nor can it offer a way out, nor can it carry us into another world. What do you want? Do you want an apology from Maggiano’s and a donation to a nonprofit? Do you want something inexpressibly larger? You must make your vision of the future so visceral and compelling and pulsing with life that anyone who brushes up against feels a rush of warmth. Hand it out as freely as soup passed to strangers on a cold and windy street.
It is not enough to avow your hatred of Nazis. It is not even enough to chant in the streets. You can also reject the narrative set before you as the one that must prevail. You can choose to root yourself unshakably in love, in the belief in your comrades and their potential, in our perpetual ability to confront the brutal structures around us and transform them, again and again, into something kinder and more just and more true. I know, it is not easy. The wind has swept in icy and the walls are high. But the food is hot and there is always warmth when you can gather a few people around you.
Attempts to carry out business as usual, to build a narrative of what is happening in this country using the tried and tested tools of journalism, will inherently favor the people aligned with the system. And you’ve seen who those people are. We sprayed liquid farts on them this weekend. Welcome to life in the unreal. No one knows how to describe it for you. Tell your own stories like your life depends on it.