By Aric Jenkins
August 17, 2017

White nationalists have been empowered not only by the presidency of Donald Trump but also by the rise of the “digital communications revolution,” Washington Post columnist and former TIME editor-at-large David Von Drehle told TIME editor Nancy Gibbs at an event Thursday.

Von Drehle, who was interviewed by Gibbs at the Chautauqua Institution in southwest New York state, said that today’s generation is living in “world historical times” that served as the backdrop for last weekend’s violent clashes between white nationalists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Va. “The United States is a wonderful, open, loving country, but we’ve always had people who live in the United States who don’t fit that description,” Von Drehle said when asked by Gibbs how he approached writing about Saturday’s violence, which left one dead and more than a dozen others injured. “It’s been difficult for those folks to find each other and organize.

“[But] today, those same folks can communicate instantly and all day long,” Von Drehle added. “They can amplify each others prejudices and notions and they can easily organize each other’s events.”

Throughout the hour-long conversation, Von Drehle and Gibbs touched upon the power of the Internet and its role and impact on contemporary journalism — particularly in the age of President Trump. Gibbs pointed out that there has been a “journalistic challenge over the past five days” because “the President has doubled-down on many of the things that he has been criticized for.”

“What we hope for in a time like this is national leadership — especially the President of the United States — that can frame [Charlottesville] in a way that’s less terrifying, less divisive, and reaffirm the core principles of the United States,” Von Drehle said. “What I missed last week was that.”

Gibbs said there was an “extraordinary disconnect” because despite the turbulence of Trump’s presidency and a national spike in “diseases of despair” such as alcoholism and opioid addiction, “we’re living in a period of extraordinary technological innovation and the longest uninterrupted period of peace since the Roman empire.

“A generation of optimists say that we are living in the greatest period to be alive ever in human history,” Gibbs added.

“Nancy’s always been the most optimistic person I know,” Von Drehle said to laughter in the audience. “I think there’s a real hunger for that — there’s always a hunger for tomorrow and what the next challenge is.”

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