Republicans planned a clown show—featuring right-wing provocateur Candace Owens—for Tuesday morning’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism. They got one, of course.
But then, none of what went on inside the hearing room compared to the deluge of hateful sewage that surged online around it.
This was a stark and striking contrast with the rest of the hearing, in between outbursts by Owens, a conservative African American affiliated with the far-right Turning Point USA, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, both of whom wanted to make the affair into a partisan circus with incendiary rhetoric that threatened to derail the decorum of the chamber.
When those two weren’t taking up oxygen, the hearing managed to produce some important insights into the rise of white nationalism, a phenomenon that concerns most terrorism experts, including the current FBI director, as the most significant terrorist threat facing Americans. As hearing participants learned, this is particularly the case given the rise of young white males being radicalized online by the white nationalist movement.
The difference between the behavior of the two parties was especially striking in regard to the somber nature of the matter being discussed. On the one hand there was Owens, who opened with a statement denouncing the hearing itself as an election-year stratagem:
The hearing today isn’t about white nationalism, it’s a preview of a Democrat 2020 election strategy, same as the 2016 election strategy. … The bottom line is that white supremacy, racism, white nationalism, words that once held real meaning, have now become nothing more than election strategies. Every four years, the black community is offered handouts and fear. Handouts and fear. Reparations and white nationalism. This is the Democrats’ preview.
Similarly beclowning the proceedings was Klein, who at one point claimed that the terrorist who murdered 50 Muslims at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was actually a left-wing “ecoterrorist.” At other points, Klein argued that Muslims are predisposed to anti-Semitism because of passages in the Koran.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas did his damnedest to take the facepalm prize with his attempt to grill representatives from Facebook and Google about their platforms’ supposed censorship of conservatives, pleading at one point on behalf of his “friends” Diamond and Silk.
But the spotlight went to Owens, who early on in the proceedings—after claiming that the “Southern Strategy” was “a myth”—got into a quarrel with Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who had called out the attempts to turn the proceedings partisan as “despicable.” Owens, in retort, called Cicilline “cowardly,” which drew a reprimand from committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler.
Obviously tiring of Owens’ self-serving martyrdom shtick, Rep. Ted Lieu opened his remarks by playing remarks Owens had made earlier about Adolf Hitler while speaking at an event with Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk in December. The room heard, in context, Owens tell her audience then, “You know, he was a national socialist, but if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted — he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.”
Owens went stone-faced as the audio played, and then a little later ripped into Lieu, saying “that it’s pretty apparent that Mr. Lieu believes that black people are stupid and will not pursue the full clip in its entirety.”
She concluded, however, on a typically strange, ahistorical note: “I do not believe that we should be characterizing Hitler as a nationalist. He was a homicidal, psychopathic maniac that killed his own people. A nationalist would not kill their own people.”
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal devoted most of her time to questioning the Facebook and Google representatives, but opened with an observation that may have been the final word on Owens’ participation:
I did want to say that the ranking member talked about the need to call out hate and stop playing to 15 minutes of fame, I think was the way it was phrased. And I do have to wonder then why the minority called some witnesses who in fact have actually traded in just this. …
My concern about some of the characterization of some of what’s happened is that we have a mass murderer who really did trade in hate, 50 counts of murder, 39 attempted murder counts, who did call out one of the witnesses on this panel as being his inspiration—whether or not she was, I’m not contending that. But I think for people across the country who are watching this hearing, the idea that we would give any kind of legitimacy to speech that in any way might be considered as triggering that kind of action—that’s different than saying somebody’s responsible, which I would never say, but I do think it is deeply hurtful for people across this country who might be watching this, to see some of those things expressed or given legitimacy to.
The bulk of the hearing was devoted to a sober discussion of the problem and its dimensions, as well as the challenges faced both by technology firms and by law enforcement and public officials in confronting the realities of radicalized white nationalists. One of its most moving moments came when Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha described for the committee what it’s like to endure a hate crime, relating the tragic murders of his son and two daughters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in February 2015 by a man who hated Muslims. Texas Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia was herself moved to tears as she struggled to retell to her fellow panelists how a young man victimized by a hate crime, who had testified before the same committee in 2007 in support of a federal hate-crimes law, had eventually committed suicide in its aftermath.
However, some of the most disturbing testimony came from the relatively clinical presentation of the Anti-Defamation League’s Eileen Hershenov, who explained how the bigotries that fuel hate crimes often overlap. “These things are absolutely linked,” she said. “You might start with some white supremacists on anti-Semitism, and you will get to anti-immigrant, refugees, Muslims, African Americans, and vice-versa.”
That was nowhere more evident than in the online world around the broadcast of the hearing on C-SPAN, where a deluge of online hate spewed forth in the comments sections of sites livestreaming it, notably on YouTube. It was so intense that YouTube disabled the comments under the video about 30 minutes in, and deleted many that had been posted.
Some of the worst bile was reserved for Hershenov’s remarks, though Abu-Salha’s heartrending testimony also drew some of the most horrendous trolls celebrating his children’s death.
As CNN noted, the partisan divide over how to handle white nationalism could not have been more starkly on display at Tuesday’s hearing. That divide is borne out in polling as well: A recent Morning Consult poll found that, among white voters, only 16 percent of Republicans consider it to be a significant threat or problem, while 60 percent of Democrats do consider it a looming threat. However, only 37 percent of the general population consider white nationalism a serious problem.