That there are white supremacists out there in America is nothing new. What’s new is that for the first time in my lifetime, and perhaps in my parents’ lifetimes, too, there is a president in the White House who so values the support of these white supremacists that he won’t dare utter a critical word about them, much less fire off an angry tweet.
That was the only conclusion we could reach this weekend as we watched President Trump react to the mayhem in Charlottesville, Virginia, by offering that he condemns the violence “on many sides,” even saying “many sides” a second time. As if what happened in Charlottesville was just some big bar brawl or high school rumble for which several different troublemakers were responsible. In his portrayal, these were just groups of demonstrators – with complete moral equivalency between the emboldened white nationalists and the "antifa," as some anti-fascist organizations are known.
It didn’t matter to Trump that the demonstrators who planned the “Unite the Right” event where white nationalists and members of the Ku Klux Klan, and that they announced that they had come to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” – in the words of David Duke – at the mass rally. It didn’t warrant a comment that the previous night, hundreds of them marched with torches onto the campus of the University of Virginia, in a scene that seemed out of the 1930s. And it wasn’t worth mentioning that the day’s victim, a 32-year-old woman, wasn’t just killed by random violence coming from “many sides.” She was killed when a man apparently active in a white supremacist group rammed his car into the crowd of antifa protestors. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified James Alex Fields, the driver of the car, as being an activist in Vanguard America, a group that is openly fascist and uses the motto “Blood and Soil,” a phrase that refers to the racist ideology embraced by the Nazis.
Back up. We don’t live in Charlottesville or the various places where the so-called the "alt-right" white nationalist movement has been holding their hate-fests, so we don’t usually see this kind of racism and anti-Semitism up close. We don’t often make it to protests because we’re busy raising our families and leading our lives. We didn’t vote for Trump, and we’re still trying to make sense of the people who did.
Did they know that Trump would be bringing white supremacists out of the woodwork, not just to entice them to the ballot box but to keep them activated in anticipation of the revolution he promised them as part of his so-called “movement?” Did they expect that after six months in office, Trump would lead America into a nuclear standoff with North Korea, warning it of the “fire and fury” that awaits it if it makes a move, even floating discussions of the U.S. engaging in a “preemptive strike?”
We don’t sleep well at night – or nearly enough. At times like this we’re up consuming news, trying to get a hold of the America we thought we knew.
The America that I decided to move back to in 2015 after nearly 20 years abroad looked far calmer and more stable than it does today.
After years in the Middle East, I worried that I would be bored in America. Instead, I’m just worried. Worried that Charlottesville will not just be a one-off event, but a turning point. For the white supremacists, it is already being read as a rallying cry, a sign that the race war has truly started. They will hold more protests, and given the American laws that protect freedom of speech and assembly, the police will not easily be able to deny them the right to do so.
While Republicans in Congress are now trying to shame Trump into denouncing these neo-Nazis, he feels he can move at his own pace – maybe denouncing them later in the week, or maybe not at all. Although his approval rating is low, Congress’ rating is still lower.
Here in Florida, where I teach at a large public university, it’s sometimes difficult to know how far from Charlottesville I really am. Posters from the white nationalist group Identity Evropa appeared on campus over the last year, enticing angry young white males to join them. The fliers disappeared soon after they went up – torn down by fellow students. Just an hour’s drive to the north of where I live, the Confederate flag still flies on houses and pick-up trucks. To those who fly it, it might be a symbol of the Old South, carrying multiple meanings. To us, however, it represents a longing for an America where slavery was legal and the white man was legally superior. It’s that flag – that ideology – that’s at stake in the statue of Robert. E. Lee in a Charlottesville public park. The city council has voted to take it down; some white people are treating that decision as evidence of their history being erased.
Perhaps the best thing that can emerge from this weekend is that people who stand against these ideologies will be more motivated than before. We will know who lost sleep, who waited for the president to rise to the occasion and felt disappointed – but not entirely surprised – when he didn’t.
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