Opinion

Charlottesville, Virginia: A Predictable Atrocity in Donald Trump's America

Anyone around the world who has paid attention over the past two years understands how many dogwhistles Trump blew to summon the 'alt-right' into action on his behalf

White nationalists wearing body armor and holding combat weapons evacuate comrades who were pepper sprayed by Virginia State Police after the protest turned violent, Charlottesville, August 12, 2017.
White nationalists wearing body armor and holding combat weapons evacuate comrades who were pepper sprayed by Virginia State Police after the protest turned violent, Charlottesville, August 12, 2017. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

On Friday August 11, as white nationalists were gathering for a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was more than a thousand miles away, heading into the juma service at a mosque outside Minneapolis. It seemed like the proper way to usher in Shabbat, by worshipping in solidarity with the congregants of Dar al-Farooq.

>> Rabbis, Jewish students face down white nationalists ■ Nazism and anti-Semitism take center stage at Charlottesville rally ■ Trump condemns 'display of hatred, bigotry and violence - on many sides' >>

The previous weekend, someone had tossed a firebomb into the imam’s office while about a dozen people were chanting morning prayers in the nearby sanctuary. Fortunately, the explosion did not harm anyone. Even more fortunately, the attacker struck a few hours before hundreds of children would have been in Dar al Farooq’s school.

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In the aftermath, U.S. President Donald Trump had nothing to say on the subject. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, declined to categorize the bombing as an act of terror. Even though Minnesota’s governor had no trouble stating the obvious, even though a thousand local residents came to the mosque several days later in a rally of support, the silence from my nation’s highest offices spoke volumes about the free pass that white nationalists have been granted for their hate.

A mugshot of James Alex Fields Jr., who was charged with one count of second degree murder after ramming into a crowed in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

So when I saw the first news alert about the terrorist assault by car on anti-racist marchers in Charlottesville – as of this writing, at least one has been declared dead and many more are injured – I could only think of the event at Dar al Farooq as one of many precursors to such violence. In the Trump era, we cannot possibly be surprised that marchers waving Nazi and Confederate flags, calling passersby “nigger” and denouncing Jews, should include a murderer by motor vehicle. Charlottesville was the predictable atrocity.

Equally predictably, Trump stayed mute for several hours after the incident. When he finally took to Twitter, it was with exquisitely offensive even-handedness, decrying the violence and hate “on many sides.” As if anyone could miss the point, he repeated the phrase twice.

Sure, if you want to parse the turbulent events of the last two days in Charlottesville, based on extensive news reports and uploaded video, you could say that self-described anti-fascists mixed it up in fistfights with white nationalists. Personally, I wish the leftists had not taken the bait, and I have to wonder, too, about agents provocateur in their midst.

Any neutral analysis, though, could only arise by completely ignoring the provocation created by several hundred racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic demonstrators marching by torchlight on Friday night, a scene surely intended to evoke a Ku Klux Klan rally. 

And such an analysis deliberately averts its eyes from the spectacle of a terrorist racing his car down a narrow street crowded with anti-racist activists who were doing nothing then to instigate their foes. By that time, in fact, Charlottesville was under a state of emergency and the white-power rally had been cancelled.

The ostensible cause of that rally was to save a statue of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, from being taken down. As the historian and journalist Jelani Cobb has pointed out, the visceral and now violent objection to its removal shows how unsettled the Civil War remains in Donald Trump’s America.

By now, anyone around the world who has paid even cursory attention to the news over the past two years understands full well how many dog whistles Donald Trump blew to summon the "alt-right" into action on his behalf. Actually, the metaphor of the dog whistle is wrong; a dog whistle implies a stealthy signal, heard only by the initiated. Trump cried out long and loud.

The dim, foolish hope that Trump the president would behave differently than Trump the candidate ended, basically, with his inaugural address. His enablers and fellow travelers include both the true believers like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, and a lot of Jews who are clearly untroubled to be the handmaidens of anti-Semities – Stephen Miller, Gary Cohn, Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman, Jared and Ivanka. May they all have a meaningful process of heshbon ha-nefesh, taking stock of the soul, during the Days of Awe.

Donald Trump, we know from his entire public life, is incapable of introspection, rumination or self-criticism. For someone who fancies himself a master builder, he is more like a master destroyer. One can only be awed at his multi-taking in that respect. Even as he flirts with nuclear war in his mine-is-bigger-than-yours confrontation with North Korea, he had time to throw gasoline on the flames of actual existing civil war here at home.

Samuel G. Freedman, the author of books including “Jew vs. Jew,” is a regular contributor to Haaretz.