Writer Jonathan Metzl on the moment neo-Nazis invaded his discussion of "whiteness"

Writer whose event was invaded by racists: It's time for conservatives to decide what side of history they're on

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 30, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Politics and Prose (Wikimedia)
Politics and Prose (Wikimedia)

Jonathan Metzl is a professor of psychiatry and sociology at Vanderbilt University and the author of the new book "Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland."

Last Saturday, his presentation for the 2019 National Antiracist Book Festival at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington was disrupted by a group of about 10 white nationalists.

On the same day as a professed neo-Nazi apparently committed a lethal hate crime in a California synagogue, a group of his allies entered the bookstore, began chanting slogans and prevented Metzl from continuing his presentation, before finally leaving. This was a highly choreographed publicity stunt that offers one more example of how emboldened and encouraged neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other elements of the militant right feel, thanks to Donald Trump's white identity movement.

I recently spoke with Metzl about what occurred on Saturday, his thoughts on being Jewish in the age of Trump and a moment of resurgent white supremacy, as well as the moral crisis that faces Republicans and other conservatives who continue to support a president who gives aid and comfort to some of the most dangerous and destructive elements in American society.

Metzl also shared his views that white Americans must fashion a new vision of whiteness if the United States is to survive and triumphant over Trump's anti-democratic authoritarian movement.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, "The Chauncey DeVega Show."

How are you feeling?

I feel fine. But it was indeed a tense moment when I was giving my talk at Politics and Prose and all of this went down. I'm standing at a podium and there are lots of people in chairs facing me so I could see the people coming in the store. But nobody else could see these neo-Nazi types because they were coming in from the back and they were very organized. There were seven or eight men and one woman, which is important to note. There was a bit of confusion as they blocked me and stood in front of the audience. At first the people there for my talk seemed to think it was part of my presentation, given that these disrupters were dressed like the Charlottesville right-wing rioters.

One guy had a bullhorn and then they started with their slogans. I'm thinking to myself, is this going to be a peaceful protest? Are these guys armed? And then they started their little presentation. It seemed like a very orchestrated song and dance. As people in the audience started to realize what was happening, there was some silence and then people started booing. It was just remarkable to see people of all ages and backgrounds trying to drown these guys out.

They finished their chanting  and then they marched out. The whole thing took about five minutes and then we had a pretty remarkable experience after they left. I said, "This isn't really a question of me giving a talk anymore. Why don't we open the conversation about what happened? What does this mean for our country? What kind of country do we live in? How do we combat this kind of hatred?"

Were you prepared for such a response to "Dying of Whiteness," given that it explains how Trumpism and white racism are actually killing and hurting the "white working class" and Trump's other red-state supporters? You are engaging in some dangerous truth-telling.

It's funny because part of what I feel was powerful for me about writing the book was getting beyond Twitter. And part of what I write about in "Dying of Whiteness" is that when you actually talk to people in real life, they're much more complicated than they are on Twitter or other venues online. At least in my interview process, it was quite rare for me to see the kind of hatred that is common online. It's all vitriol. To come in contact with that on the same day that a neo-Nazi attacked a synagogue and killed a person and injured others in California is very troubling given the current leadership of this country.

At other times, at least in my life -- of course there has always been this kind of racist hatred in our country -- there was also some sense that there was a system of checks and balances. The Justice Department steps in and says, "This isn't how we act." Or the president says, "We come together as a nation." And when you remove that framework, the terror here is not just about the event itself. It's more about who's in charge. Who's going to protect us? And I think that's really the scary part, just the sense of how emboldened these Nazis and others of their type are right now. They weren't even wearing masks when they came into the bookstore.

As we have discussed in an earlier conversation, you are a much more tolerant and empathetic person than I am regarding Trump's supporters. Would you consider speaking with the neo-Nazis who interrupted your talk on Saturday?

Let me be clear first and tell you that I have many friends from across the political spectrum. Some are very liberal. I've also got a lot of conservative friends from my years living in Tennessee and Detroit. I also have friends who are evangelical Trump supporters who I consider very close to me. They've reached out to me since this happened on Saturday. My conservative friends, my evangelical Trump-supporting friends, are now in a bind. It is their moment to decide what side of history they are now on.  In total, I have received many messages from people saying, "Hey, let's figure out a better way because this really is not the country we want to be living in."

So I would gladly talk to people who were willing to engage on that question because it is so very important. I have no interest in having a debate or some type of discussion about a subject that I feel is not debatable. Maybe I would talk to one of those neo-Nazis and others who agree with them as an interview subject or a patient. That might be more interesting. I'm not going to get into a debate about "white identity." To participate in such a thing gives equal footing to both sides that are not in any way equal.

What happened to you is also an example of how conservatives love to play the victim and complain that they are somehow being "censored" or denied free speech when in reality they are part of a concerted campaign to silence their opposition through intimidation.

That's exactly right. There were two ironic things that happened in Politics and Prose that I thought were pretty interesting and telling. When these protesters came in I was talking about how much stronger America is when it's confident and open and welcoming. I was sharing the story of how my dad and my grandparents escaped Austria during the Holocaust. They got into the United States and were basically sheltered by a very brave family who became their official hosts. I was pointing at one of the members of that family who is now 80 years old. I was talking about him and how it was such an honor for me that he came to my presentation. Their taking in my family was a risk. There was plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country at the time.

But people stood up and they said, "Hey, our American society is better if we're confident and welcoming and strong." And it turned out that my dad and his grandparents came to America and he became a pillar of our community. He was a doctor who saved many people's lives and tried to make the country a better place. My father was so patriotic that he joined the Air Force. I was born on an Air Force base. So it's just funny that I was saying, "Here's how great America can be," and then at that moment in come the Nazis.

There's a flip side, which is here's how ugly America can be right now. And I just think that's the debate we're really having in America in this moment with Donald Trump, where it's really a debate about whiteness in many ways. Do we want the generous, strong, open kind of country that welcomed my father? Or do we want a country -- especially a certain type of white identity politics -- that is basically telling white people that immigrants and minorities are going to take "your stuff" and that we need to build walls.

There is another irony at work in that moment on Saturday with the Nazis. My book, in a way, agrees with the premise of their protest. So these guys were coming in and they were saying white Americans are getting screwed. And my book is really saying that white Americans are in fact getting screwed. But the difference is that white Americans are not getting screwed by immigrants or by minorities. They're getting screwed by politicians and a type of capitalism that is undercutting infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools and health care. Money is being taken away from working-class people across the board and being given in the form of tax cuts to wealthy people and corporations. As my book explains these policies are literally killing white people in red-state America.

For many academics these questions of race and power and the real cost of doing social change work is an abstraction. There is no real skin in the game for many people who write about these topics. But on Saturday you saw neo-Nazis face to face, flesh and blood. You know how dangerous they are. What were you thinking?

When I feel under attack, I definitely think more like an academic. So I my first thought was probably that the breakfast that these Nazis ate was prepared by immigrants. The Ubers that they took to the protest were probably driven by immigrants. The clothes they're wearing were probably made by immigrants. So I guess at first I just started thinking that if they had this idea of a "pure white country" they wouldn't be wearing clothes or getting over here by Uber or eating any food. What blindness these types of people have regarding what the world would look like if they go their way. These Nazis and others who think like and are sympathetic to them do not realize how dependent and interconnected they are with people they hate.

 How is Trumpism complicating the relationship about what it means to be Jewish and white?

I think about it a lot actually. The Jews that I know are Democrats, right? Trump recently held a rally where he said, "America's full." This rally in Las Vegas was for right-wing Republican Jews. Trump has also been allied with Benjamin Netanyahu in supporting a very conservative, racist, Islamophobic narrative.

Trump has been dangling this whiteness narrative in front of particularly conservative Jews. Jews themselves are being divided by race in the United States depending on how they feel about President Trump. I often wonder, how could the Jews that I know and I grew up with be down with all these things that Trump is doing and saying right now? There is a division about red vs blue Jews right now, but that's a distinction which of course does not matter to white supremacists. We're all Jews as far as they're concerned. So in that sense, this is very familiar territory for us as a people.

We bond together in times of crisis, around the shooting in California at the Poway synagogue and other incidents. Shared victimhood and solidarity have been the Jewish experience. Hopefully we can rekindle Jewish solidarity, as we did with groups like the NAACP in the '50s and '60s during the civil rights movement. I'm hoping that new alliances will come out of this moment under Trump.

When you're staring down those neo-Nazis on Saturday, did you feel history living through you as a Jewish brother?

I grew up feeling that. My dad, as I've mentioned before, was very patriotic, but there was this other part of his mind and programming. He came to the United States when he was 12. Eighty members of our family were murdered in the Holocaust. Only three or four survived. My dad and my mom were both very successful physicians in Kansas City. But my dad couldn't help but to stockpile toilet paper and deodorant and soap in a closet in our basement. I think in his mind the Nazis were going to come again and he wanted to have a kit ready in case we had to make a run for it.

I grew up in that environment and it's probably those sensibilities that led me to write "Dying of Whiteness." Some part of me felt this horrible thing happening five years ago -- and of course I know that many people who live in this country who are not white felt this horrible thing happening in America from the day they were born.

This particular cultural, political, social and racial tension that's been building up to Trump really makes it feel like we're on the cusp of an America that is not the country that my dad felt was his literal savior.

What can we do to better communicate to the general public -- especially those still in denial -- about what Trump's movement represents in terms of the dangerous and ugly racial authoritarianism and violence he and it encourages? 

Everything is a function of sample bias. I'm so emboldened by the thousands of messages I've been getting from social media since the Nazis disrupted my event at Politics and Prose. I am not the only person who has experienced such hatred. You can see the power and the bravery of community in the aftermath of such events. There are so many strong, powerful coalitions in this country that do not espouse the kind of views that we're seeing right now against immigrants, Muslims, Jews, nonwhites and other groups. But of course, history teaches us that small contingents, small factions of extremists can exert a lot of horrible power in a society.

The optimist in me wants to point out that there is a 2020 election coming up and it's an election for the soul of our country. The 2020 election against Donald Trump matters probably more than any election in recent memory. But the pessimist in me says, "Look, the Democrats just took the Congress and now Trump is just delegitimizing Congress in response." We're seeing the order of things slowly fall away. It is hard for liberal-minded people to see it. And I also think it's a critical moment for my conservative friends. At what point do conservatives start to finally say, "Hey, wait, I'm not comfortable with what Trump and his movement are doing to America."

Would the red-state Trump supporters you interviewed for "Dying of Whiteness" support you against these neo-Nazis and other right-wing hooligans?

A number of them certainly would support and help me. There are a number of people that I met doing the book who I am still in close contact with. And there are remarkably brave people who are in the Republican Party in red states that are fighting for things that I think are good. The problem is that the Republican Party has been so very effective at transforming questions of public policy into questions of racial identity.

To be "pro-gun" is to be white. To be anti-Obamacare is to be white and conservative. So people can say, "I don't like what Trump's doing," but they still support him because he is viewed as a messenger for these bigger issues that these white voters care about.

Many conservatives and others are in great denial about Trump, racism, anti-Semitism and the bigotry and hatred he is encouraging and unleashing. Is it even worth our time to engage these people? Are they just acting in bad faith and they do in fact know better?

We can create an alliance that's much stronger than these Nazis and other right-wing bigots will ever be. Yes, white supremacy is ascendant in America with Donald Trump. Yes, the president of the United States is sending both overt and implicit messages to say that certain heretofore unacceptable acts and public speech and values in America are now permissible. What are we going to do about it? One answer is to try to convince people that white nationalism is real. But that fact is pretty obvious and hard to deny right now.

But the other option is to articulate a different framework and vision for America. What is the vision that we are going to replace that racist version of America with? We need more white people articulating a different version and understanding of what it means to be white, one that is not based on racism or racial resentment. Ninety-nine percent of the responses I've gotten to my book have been quite positive and productive. This Nazi incident grabbed the headlines, but I am not going to let what they did define the reception of my book and the conversation we need to have about the future of our country.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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