I don’t actually live in a liberal echo chamber, but I didn’t know who Candace Owens was until I read one of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto (thoughts on that here). Many commentators have dismissed the shooter’s positive regard for Owens as mere trolling. I was inclined to believe that until I learned from no fewer than five friends (thanks for pushing me to write this post) she had been invited by House Republicans to comment on the present state of white nationalism in this country. It did not go well. Comments she made in London in late 2018 were introduced by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). The video itself is worth watching, but here’s the quote in full:
I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism’. I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want. … Whenever we say ‘nationalism’, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler. 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. He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. Everybody to look a different way. That’s not, to me, that’s not nationalism.
Perhaps we can largely bracket the questions of diversity and Republican opportunism. For instance, no reputable theoretician of diversity has ever seriously claimed a single Black or queer or disabled or migrant person speaks for their entire community. So it would be wrong to characterize her as a spokesperson for any given group to which she may incidentally belong. Indeed, I glean from other remarks Owens has made she would balk at the suggestion she is being used a prop or that she is merely speaking from a place of “epistemological privilege”. So we should assume Owens is there to speak in good faith in her capacity as an expert on World War II, white nationalism, political theory, or… something. But comments like this suggest that isn’t the case. It’s almost too grim to even entertain the idea she is speaking from a well-informed place.
I have criticized progressives for their underdeveloped and underwhelming Nazi comparisons in the past. (The U.S. government separating families at the southern border may be egregious, but the Nazis did more than that.) So this isn’t about scoring partisan points. I think most people search back in history for Nazi parallels because they signal a certain kind of virtue: Well, we’re not that bad! or Things are terrible, look around! Owens is clearly making an argument finely attuned to the former.
Doubtless her defenders will suggest it was (a) petty for Lieu to dredge up old remarks and (b) she wasn’t technically wrong about the whole nationalism thing. Perhaps she has a cursory knowledge of Hannah Arendt! (But none of the clarifications she has made since then have been comforting—especially her assertion that Hitler was deranged. He wasn’t.) She nestles a larger political argument in false modesty. And since I am a student of religious ethics, not a rhetorician, my eyebrows rose considerably when faced with that larger claim.
So long as she and her defenders can maintain Owens was simply speaking about her own point of view, they will frame this as a “free speech” issue. They will claim she has a radical intellect that Democrats want censured because they can’t stomach the idea of a black woman carrying the GOP’s water. This is a bad argument. No one begrudges Owens her opinions. Indeed, I take seriously the idea that Owens herself means no harm because I assume if she knew her comments are steeped in antisemitic stereotype she would issue an apology and refrain from feigning authority on white nationalism. Time will tell.
But for now we can occupy ourselves by unpacking this larger claim because this is where she invites genuine criticism. Maybe she never quite finished The Origins of Totalitarianism? I suspect if she did she would be a lot more careful in her consideration of an “elitist” conspiracy against “nationalism”. Whatever their flaws, “elitists” are people and nationalism is not. But what “they” want is some here undefined “globalism”. So for her purposes it suits Owens to link these hidden elites with Hitler. President Trump, his Congressional allies, and by extension, herself, can’t possibly be as bad as Hitler! He oversaw the slaughter of millions and they clearly aren’t!
Again, for her defenders, the larger point will slide on this technicality. This should disturb them. It should trouble GOP donors and politicians who make a good show of supporting Israel and other Jewish causes. I suspect Owens is smart enough to know she was playing fast and loose with the term “globalize” in the context of Hitler’s ambitions for Europe. He never would have thought about it in those terms. But that’s not really the point. For Owens and the GOP members that summoned her, the point is to show the problem in the United States today just isn’t as bad as it was then… so what’s all the fuss about? She seems selectively not-outraged by the apologists and inciters who temporarily occupy space 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.