Thanksgiving, which is celebrated in America on the fourth Thursday of every November, is a time for good cheer among friends and relatives. It celebrates faith in one’s community and good manners and prayers at the dinner table.
Not this year though. And certainly not in Washington — a bastion of democratic resolve, where this columnist has lived for well over four decades. In Washington this year, Thanksgiving promised to be all doom and gloom. Is President-elect Donald Trump, along with his government appointees, really going to occupy the White House at noon on January 20, 2017? The turkey this year looks awful and the conversation sounds contrived. And that’s because it feels as if what we’re eating is humble pie, what we’re drinking is coniferous hemlock and what we’re engaging in is self-serving babble. And resounding through that babble — at times in stifled allusion to dread yet to come, at other times in strident lament at what has befallen Americans — is the grim fact that the America that we have known for generations is gone. You know that the barbarians are at the gate when you consider that the country has elected the first president in its history endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
The old demons of Euro-centrism, that everyone thought had been exorcised forever in American society, have resurfaced via a vanguard that calls itself the alt-right, or white nationalists — today’s euphemism of choice for white supremacists. The term was coined by Richard B. Spencer, but became a rage after the pugnacious Steven K. Bennan, Donald Trump’s incoming chief White House strategist, called his incendiary Breitbart website “the platform for the alt-right”.
Spencer, who heads the National Policy Institute, a group that describes itself as an “independent organisation dedicated to the heritage, identity and future of the people of European descent in the United States and around the world”, came out of the woodwork into the open glare of national attention during Trump’s ascendance as a Republican candidate for president. Late on November 8, after it became clear that the New York tycoon had won the general election, Spencer tweeted exultantly: “The alt-right is more deeply connected to Trumpian populism than the ‘conservative movement’. We’re the establishment now.”
They may very well be.
On November 20, the National Policy Institute held its annual conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, that drew 300 white supremacists — oops, white nationalists — and no less than 50 reporters, where the immaculately dressed, articulate and highly educated 38-year-old Spencer (who sports a haircut known as “fashy”, short for fascist) told the attendees, who had flown in from around America, that his dream is a “new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans”, and called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”. More than that, he added that “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance and it belongs to us”.
He ended his speech by hollering triumphantly: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.” The attendees rose to their feet, their arms extended in the Nazi salute. Whew! And that was a few blocks away from he White House, in America’s capital.
A day earlier, Spencer, who lives in Northern Virginia, was having dinner at a swanky restaurant called Maggiano’s in downtown Washington with a large group of like-minded friends. A Washington Post reporter, present at the gathering, wrote: “As as the dinner neared its end ... he explained the schedule for the next day’s conference. Then, as Spencer considered how they should mark its finish, he smiled and offered a joke.” The joke? “Let’s party like it’s 1933”, he said, referring to the year Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor and the Nazis embarked on their own ethno- state.
Was he really joking?
Thanksgiving dinner, I say, is a time not for self-flagellation, but good cheer. Yet, given America’s descent into a funnel of redneckism, there is, around the dinner table, little to cheer, and a lot to flagellate one’s self for. How did it all sneak up like that? The fact is that the alt-right had been a work-in-progress in American political culture long before the alt-right — the progeny of ultra-conservatism — had become conscious of its own existence and popularised the moniker. The alt-rightists had been there all along, on the sidelines, waiting for their messiah to lead them to the Promised Land, all 61 million of them who had voted for Trump earlier this month.
And that included 51 per cent of women — women seemingly unfazed by their candidate’s hot-mic remarks about how he could misbehave with women and get away with it because, well, he was a celebrity. Not to mention, to everyone’s bafflement, almost one in three Hispanics.
America’s national mood was there, all along, brewing, albeit on a subterranean level, when, for example, Newt Gingrich, known for his scorched-earth tactics in political battle, declared war on liberals in a speech he delivered at the Heritage Foundation in 2007, titled ‘Where do Conservatives go from here?’ He thundered: “The war has to be fought with a scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil war.”
No, dear reader, the Barack Obama interlude, represented by a level-headed, conciliatory and disciplined chief executive, was a mere “puncture in the dialectic”, as Marxists like to call such social phenomenon. And an element of that diplomatic tact was evident when the US president met Trump two days after the presidential election to wish him well and told President-elect Trump that if he “succeeds then the country succeeds”.
Was Obama really joking?
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile