By J.D. Munch
On Friday night, August 11, protestors marched with torches through the campus of the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus. This march came as a lead-in to a scheduled protest of the city’s removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The marchers embraced fully the neo-Nazi, white supremacist movement, chanting phrases like “Blood and soil,” “White lives matter,” and “You will not replace us.” The march, through a college campus in a liberal town darkened by a deep racist history, was planned and intended to intimidate local residents. A group of neo-Nazis surrounded counter-protestors at the park and attacked them with torches and mace.
On Saturday, the protestors arrived for the rally early, and armed. By the time the official rally was set to commence, enough violence had occurred for the police to declare it an unlawful assembly. The violence continued, including a car driving into a group of counter-protestors. Virginia’s governor declared a city-wide state of emergency, and the police started making arrests.
Later on Saturday, President Trump nominally condemned the violence, and essentially blamed everyone there. He declared a need to restore law and older, waggling his finger from his current vacation in New Jersey. Unfortunately, though, his statements fall far short of condemning directly the hate that inspired the protest, the kind of hate that helped his rise to the presidency in the first place. Trump’s statements, in fact, do little to counter the accumulating evidence that his is a presidency that lives on hatred, and thrives on the very ideas that created the violence in Virginia this weekend.
Backdrop of the Protest
Charlottesville unfortunately served as a sensible landing spot for all the alt-right anger that fueled the events of Saturday. The city carries a past steeped in racism. It was the last city in the country to integrate after Brown v. Board of Education. It has extensive history with the Ku Klux Klan, and even this year has been home to KKK rallies. But that history is juxtaposed against a present-day city with a strong progressive majority. Just as a tornado forms when opposing fronts clash in nature, this city’s past and present feel like they had the makings of an intense storm. And the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue served as a catalyst, a tangible point at which the forces of past and present would clash.
The Quiet Re-Legitimizing of White Supremacists
But a funny thing about odious ideas in America: they tend to hide from the light of day when the people who hold them feel the disapproval of the masses. This has always been part of the concept of a marketplace of ideas, one of the critical concepts behind the First Amendment: the best ideas are supposed to rise to the top, and the darkest, most shameful ideas should be pushed out of existence. Some people will always hate some other people, but—so the theory goes—hatred will lose, and society will benefit.
Indeed, this has happened for a long time. As a nation, America has come a long way since the 1950s. We have a long way to go, but we now live in a society that, for the most part, recognizes that it is more than all white men who are created equal. We largely recognize the wrongs that have been inflicted on men and women of color, and work actively to remedy those wrongs by creating new opportunities and seeing the basic humanity in everyone.
Or so it seems. Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign, those who would once have slinked in shame, holding their tongues and only letting the occasional racist thought slip out at uncomfortable family gatherings suddenly began to find their voices. They found a leader willing to let them be their horrible selves, so long as they would vote for him. They discovered that they could espouse their bigotry, celebrate their vile notions of a white race pushing back at the progress of others. They found a man who either believed all the same things they did, or willingly went along because he recognized a benefit to his reach for power. And they ran with it.
How did Trump enable this despicable segment of society? In many ways it may have begun with his birther nonsense regarding President Obama. He raised the specter of Obama as an African interloper, a dark menace whom he continues to blame for everything he fails to do. He never had to use racist epithets, because his positioning of Obama was clear to all of the worst of his voters. Part of it was his campaign rhetoric as well. His constant calls to shut out the insidious others, his divisiveness in calling for a wall to keep out Mexican “rapists and murderers,” and his cries for a complete Muslim ban all sang out to those who wish to exclude others from their version of America based on their race or nationality.
And as sickening as it all was, it worked; he now is grabbing hold of his opportunity to send the United States back to something more akin the time of Jim Crow laws and official segregation. One step the Trump administration took early on was to refocus counterterrorism efforts to exclusively address Muslim extremism, and to exclude terrorism from white nationalists from the focus of government efforts. This move, besides ostracizing adherents to a major world religion practices by millions of peaceful U.S. citizens, sent a clear message to the kinds of people who created the violence in Charlottesville. And Trump has followed an ongoing pattern of tweeting instantly about terror attacks he believes are carried out by Muslims, but not responding strongly—or sometimes at all—to terror attacks against Muslims. He even went so far as to suggest we need more police violence, after saying little to nothing against police violence against African-American victims.
All of this, in ways both subtle and obvious, serves to encourage those who hate people who are different. From before his campaign began, Trump fed off this despicable segment of the population and fed their hatred, encouraged them to emerge from the shadows and step out, speak out against the atrocities that notions of equality and humanity toward others have created for racist white people. This is why David Duke himself, the former KKK Grand Dragon and Trump supporter, emphasized that white people put Trump in office.
Republican Responses to the Event
Against this backdrop, the events in Charlottesville gave Trump and other Republicans a chance to condemn the hatred and violence that the alt-white protestors represented and perpetrated. This was their chance to show the country that they unequivocally reject those who seek to subjugate others based on race, nationality, religion, or sexuality. But to do so, they would have to call out part of the Republican base as the bigots they are. As you might guess, they opted to go in a different direction.
The GOP response focused on calls for unity, a “can’t we all just get along” in the face of direct, antagonistic racist acts. Trump himself led the non-charge, condemning violence and rejecting it “on all sides”—because how dare those opposed to the white nationalists show up, speak up, and get attacked like that? Mike Pence chimed in that he supports the President, while calling for unity. Paul Ryan dared object to bigotry, while also calling for everyone to come together.
So that’s nice, right? We should all come together, hold hands, and sing around a campfire of unity. But this was a gathering of people driven by hatred for others, spurred on by the statements and the actions of a President who enabled them. The idea that people of color, non-Christians, and LGBTQ citizens should just listen, nod, and agree to disagree about their right to exist as equal citizens is both absurd and dismissive. These alt-right assholes feel they are threatened by others having rights, and they attack: with words, with torches, with mace. They stir up memories for people who lived through sanctioned racism 60 years ago, and people who every day see new attacks on people of color—not decades ago, but this year—by alt-right thugs and police officers alike. To place the violence of the alt-right and the response of an attacked community on equal footing sends the wrong message at a time when tensions have been rising for years.
Jason Kessler organized the “Unite the Right” rally that was cancelled for Saturday. He stated that the reason for the rally was “the anti-white hatred that’s coming out of the city.” So when Trump calls for everyone to “unite,” to fight hatred “from many sides,” this will only embolden these people. The white supremacist movement is building again, and the President of the United States is helping make it happen. Just as the cry of “all lives matter” serves to delegitimize the specific treatment of people of color as having lives that historically and in many ways even now do not matter as much as others’ lives do, so the call for everyone to calm down and “unite” now serve to set on equal ground actions that are far from equal.
A Fight for the Soul of America
Donald Trump continues to push out the same kind of rhetoric from his campaign: the notion that we need more law and order to keep people under control, and all unite under his appalling vision for America. That vision, more and more, looks like one in which the President serves as a strongman dictator, one who supports the right kind of Americans against the wrong kind. He wants to eliminate opposition and difference. And in a magnificent moment in cynical hypocrisy, he does so in the name of getting rid of the divisions that affect our country every day.
When Trump speaks of divisions, he really is attacking differences. He seeks to exclude voices and faces of opposition. To accomplish this, he encourages those who would fight to eliminate the insidious other, those whose ideas or beliefs or skin color differ from theirs. He calls for the kind of unity that comes from a non-diverse America, for the elimination of divisions by squelching any sign of dissent. He demands order in the form of obsequiousness.
This is not the America I know and love. Free speech exists as a critical right in this country, but the speech of hatred must be condemned. Threats and acts of violence from those who espouse hatred cannot be condoned by the President. We must resist a government that condones and supports hate groups out of fear of losing its grip on the power those groups helped it obtain. We must battle for a nation that brings people together not by crushing difference, but by celebrating it. This means working together through the processes our Constitution creates to remove this despotic cretin from office. We cannot rest until we remove Trump and regain the soul of this nation.