Nobody is naive enough to believe that white supremacy and anti-Semitism in America began a year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia – nor that it was somehow defeated on the streets of Washington, D.C. on Sunday.
Nonetheless, the resounding failure of the second “Unite the Right” march, as reflected in the event’s poor turnout and early dispersal of white nationalists, still represents a major victory in the battle against racism.
Fewer than 30 people turned out to stand up for so-called “white civil rights.” The fact that several of those in the small group that did come needed to hide their faces with masks or old-fashioned Klu Klux Klan hoods showed that the tremendous backlash to what happened in Charlottesville revived the notion that expressing racism in the public square comes with a price.
The demonstrators may say they dispersed early because of the rain, but what was dampened was the far-right’s enthusiasm for public exposure.
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What truly shocked Americans about last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville wasn’t the sentiments - anyone who has spent time on Twitter knows that there are people and groups with truly appalling views and that racism is alive and well. The messages themselves weren’t new - the lack of shame was.
Even before the violence broke out on the day of last year’s rally, the image of so many young people marching in formation in full view - without hoods and masks - holding torches, chanting Nazi-inspired slogans like “Blood and Soil” and the “Jews WIll Not Replace Us!” upended those who couldn’t believe such a display was possible. The next day brought the true horror: the large-scale rally in which neo-Nazi and Confederate symbols were displayed, and worn with pride. The city’s synagogue was threatened and physically menaced. The day was capped by the tragic death of Heather Heyer who was crushed by the car of a white supremacist who plowed into the counter-demonstration in which she was marching.
Charlottesville became the symbol of a far-right emboldened by the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, a candidate who had a long history of race-baiting and rode to victory in a campaign replete with dog-whistles politics that denigrated minorities, stereotyping Latino immigrants as criminals and Muslims as terrorists. His presence in the White House empowered the more extreme elements of his base and encouraged them to come out of the closet - why should robes and hoods be necessary, when the most powerful man in the country is, as they believed, one of them? In the immediate aftermath of the rally, the message that Trump was on their side was delivered in his unwillingness to immediately and unequivocally condemn them, saying that there were “fine people on both sides.”
The fallout in the year since Charlottesville taught those who have hate in their hearts that displaying it in public comes at a price - especially under the glare of the national spotlight. The same social media and digital world that brought the disparate groups of racists together were also harnessed to fight back against them, identifying them by name, and causing them, in many cases, to lose their jobs. The tiny turnout for “Unite the Right 2” was the result. Not even one of the “big names” of the so-called alt-right showed up for this years gathering - other than its organizer, self-styled “white civil rights activist” Jason Kessler, figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke stayed home. Others, like the editor of the “Daily Stormer,” Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi, went a step further and warned their followers not to attend, telling them that being “doxxed” or exposed could ruin their lives.
Shaming of the potential participants preceded the event, and, in addition to the mobilization of counter protests, major brands like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber announced that they would deny service to the participants.
And so, even before their hasty departure and the humiliating spectacle of crowds shouting “Shame!” and overwhelming Kessler and his tiny crew of supporters who had to be surrounded by police protection, their event was pronounced a disastrous flop. The move that so upset leftist opponents - allowing the far right group to travel to the rally in protected train cars - turned into a public relations victory for counter protests, helping to emphasizing that Kessler’s group was so small, they could fit in a single car.
While the rally’s failure is understandably encouraging for those who were horrified by the Charlottesville a year ago, there is little grounds for complacency.
An unprecedented number of candidates on the state and national races in the 2018 midterm elections are unabashed white nationalists and anti-Semites. Other political leaders - including those serving in the Trump administration - have helped bring previously marginalized white supremacist sentiments into the mainstream of political discourse. A resounding defeat for candidates voicing such messages will resound far louder than any rained-out, quickly dispersed demonstration.
The racist right may have lost its battle for the streets of Washington, D.C. on Sunday. But the war against both overt and subtle racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia in America is far from over.