Without a symbol around which to rally, would extreme conservatism die a quiet death? If we take away the symbol, would we take away a part of their identity?
A funny thing happens on the way to the weekend: the little town in which I exercise my day-to-day American struggle experiences a Gregor-level mutation: the Central Valley roars into town.
Monday through Friday our nook of the country lives as a well-balanced, West Coast beach town1. Every Friday afternoon, however, a rumble arrives from the East. The mayor calls the phenomenon, “good for the local economy”. Seeing it evolve over the last decade, I call it a study of the extremitization of conservatism.
They pour into town around 3 and squat through Sunday. The lines at our local Chevron bleed a block onto Grand Avenue: trucks, vans, ATVs, RVs – the occasional Honda – and giant trailer behemoths that are half garage, half living quarters2 – the culture represents the very pinnacle of republican-biased consumption.
And there are flags…
Lots and lots of flags: Trump flags, confederate flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags… everywhere a flag flag. The flags are large and creatively car-mounted so they wave their self-declared glory everywhere patronned.
Conservatism is defined, motivated, and expanded by symbols
It’s easier that way. A cross, a flag, a gun, a cartoon frog, or a blustery NY real estate tycoon – symbols are vital to unifying conservatives.
The instinctive nature of a conservative mind is to block the outside: defend one’s own territory and keep others out in order to prevent change. It’s not in the nature of conservatives to unite as a group. Working in concert is a social activity, which goes against the very core of the conservative id. Symbolism is how the conservative mind can overcome those antisocial instincts.
Uniting under a symbol isn’t social; it isn’t singing a song or raising a barn. People unite under a symbol because they believe the symbol defines something about them as an individual, not how that individual fits into the larger group in any social arrangement. A conservative thinks, “this flag defines me“, not “this flag defines the group with which I’m affiliated.”3 True conservatives are incapable of defining themselves as part of a larger whole. They only see themselves in the singular, and as such, tend to be terrified and distrusting of anything “not them”. In fairness, this trait is identical in all extremists.
It is a very lonely way to exist. When that loneliness hits a breaking point we get things like James Alex Fields, Jr.
White nationalism relies heavily on symbols, both to hide and identify. White nationalists love flags, logos and uniforms… anything that makes them feel as though they are clearly defined – because deeper down they feel horribly lost in a world that constantly changes. They never debate, they only show, tell, and taunt from behind the armed militia line.
Can banning a flag because it’s a violence-inducing form of hate speech stop white nationalism?
Probably not. But it would such an act carry enough weight to marginalize them back to the roach holes from whence they came? Maybe. Without a symbol around which to rally, would extreme conservatism die a quiet death? If we take away the symbol, would we take away a part of their identity?
Many thing scare me. At the top of my list is how America cannot get itself out of the militarized, black and white, win or lose definition of politics. City council to the White House, governing has become war, rather than a means to improving lives and communities. Every morning I ask how we can get out of our deeply tribalized social structure… and every night I have no answer. While a third political party could force negotiation, ours is a system too expensive for there ever to be a viable one.
Thanks to Steve Bannon, White Nationalism is American politics, and so suffers from the same problem. Declaring their symbols hate speech that incite violence (not just hate symbols) might help marginalize the movement, but as history has proven time and time again, it will never go away.
1 Equally split red and blue, and we get along quite nicely. (back)
2 Because what red-blooded American doesn’t want to share his bed with his car? Nothing rocks a “real American” to sleep like the tempo of dripping coolant and the sweet smell of axel grease wafting through the bedroom. (back)
3 And definitely not, “This symbol defines the group with which I’m affiliated and that we’re going to go help improve our community by helping build a house, collect and distribute food, and be respectful to people who disagree with our worldview.(back)