For many people living in the twenty-first century in the most advanced nation the world has ever seen, the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA on August 11-12, 2017 was a shock to the conscience. In the hours and days after hundreds of protesters marched with Nazi and Confederate flags (some of them proudly and defiantly exhibiting Nazi salutes) and chanted anti-Semitic slogans in their ostensible and ultimately self-defeating attempt to express opposition to the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, millions took to social media to express outrage, disseminate memes, and record their solidarity with the noble cause of condemning racism and white nationalism.
I was not among those who leapt immediately into the fires of counter-protest in the hours afterward. I had seen headlines, but did not read the news stories because I generally pay little attention to protests. As a rule, I do not participate in protests (I have explained my reasons here). Moreover, protests have become so common in the polarized times in which we live that I have become jaded about headline-grabbing placards and mass demonstrations. I also have plenty of commitments and responsibilities in my personal life to distract me from the sound and fury of a maddening crowd, however just (or in this case, unjust) the cause for which crowds have amassed to show, as President Trump might say, their ‘fire and fury’.
But as the story continued to gain traction, it became clear that something unusual was afoot. Among the reasons I do not participate in protests is I refuse to run the risk of being associated with ideas and people I do not support. In the din and confusion of a large crowd, it is inevitable there will be participants who express fringe, extremist ideas and sentiments that I have no interest in abetting with my participation. In the case of protests against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, I can conceive of good reasons to admire General Lee, as I argued here in offering a partial defense of the complicated legacy of the great Civil War general. But in 2017, I would never participate in protests over Lee monuments in part because the odds are high that white nationalists like Richard Spencer would show up and, not simply commandeer, but tarnish my own personal cause of expressing measured support for Robert E. Lee. I have no interest in being associated with their kind.
Well, I was right. Richard Spencer and his ilk showed up. What became clear about Charlottesville, however, was that the fanatical voices that show up at protests were, in this case, front and center, and they were the worst of the worst. Richard Spencer was one of the scheduled headline speakers, and several white supremacist groups were in attendance, including the neo-Confederate secessionist group League of the South, white nationalist group Identity Evropa, and neo-Nazi group The Daily Stormer. If one was initially inclined to give attendees the benefit of the doubt, not having closely examined the organizers of the event, and suggest that attendees were genuinely and primarily motivated by a concern about heritage, though misguided by the odd notion that white people are under siege, it was soon apparent that hatred and malice far outweighed any other motives for the rally. Nazi chants like ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘blood and soil’ were heard. One demonstrator remarked about Charlottesville: ‘This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers’. In essence, this rally was well-attended by individuals espousing a worldview that many of us believed had been safely relegated to the past, one in which white supremacy ruled the roost morning, noon, and night. It was the kind of worldview which fed a Nazi regime which exterminated six million Jews, and a nineteenth-century culture of white supremacy which enslaved four million black Americans.
As I eventually came to appreciate the import of these protests, I felt compelled to share a video I saw on my Facebook feed of a man tearing up a Nazi flag. I also remarked on my utter amazement that the President of the United States failed to immediately single out and condemn the offensive ideology and violent transgressions of white nationalism. I was reminded of last year when President Trump initially refused to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during an interview (which I wrote about here). For a megalomaniac who runs to Twitter at the first hint of controversy, the Twitter-in-chief’s failure, in the hours after the protest, to issue a single tweet explicitly condemning neo-Nazis and white nationalists in
Charlottesville was unconscionable and disgraceful.
But given his curious agnosticism on David Duke last year, it was perhaps not surprising. Yet there are no excuses for a man who could have used the power of his office to condemn white nationalism and chose not to. And yes, he tweeted ‘we must all be united and condemn all that hate stands for’, but that was a conspicuously milquetoast remark for a man who insulted media personality and Trump critic Mika Brzezinski by saying she was ‘bleeding badly from a facelift’ during a visit to his Mar-a-Lago resort, or issues bellicose threats against the lunatic in North Korea. And yes, he eventually gave a statement condemning the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other hate groups, but then double-downed the next day and churlishly insisted ‘both sides’ were to blame for the violence, even claiming that there were some ‘very fine people’ who participated in the ‘Unite the Right’ rally (but were apparently unwilling to disengage once Nazi flags were observed among the demonstrators).
Trump seemingly was unable to recognize or acknowledge that, even if the militant Left is deserving of censure for its own provocative acts, this was not the time for that. There was nothing to be gained from drawing moral equivalence between neo-Nazis, Confederate sympathizers, and white nationalists who instigated the rally, and counter-protesters who showed up (even if armed) to oppose them; as Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, ‘The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win.’ Moreover, a woman named Heather Heyer had been murdered by a flagrant act of domestic terrorism and the president chose not to use the power of his office to immediately condemn violence unequivocally committed by an alleged Nazi sympathizer. Trump eventually praised Ms. Heyer and unambiguously stated the driver of the car that killed Ms. Heyer was a murderer. But any moral weight his statement might have carried fell by the wayside after he carelessly apportioned some of the blame to ‘alt-left’ counter-protesters for violence at a rally instigated by white nationalists.
Trump’s failure of leadership did not go unnoticed. Not by millions of Americans, a majority of whom disapproved of how he handled the situation. Not by the news media. Not by the CEOs who resigned from his American Manufacturing Council. Not by Republican leaders like Bob Corker who questioned his temperament and competence. And most ominously, not by the white nationalists themselves, who went on to express their gratitude and thanks to the president for essentially providing cover to the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstrators in Charlottesville by insisting that ‘alt-left’ counter-protesters deserved a portion of the blame for the violence that occurred, and that there were ‘very fine people’ in a crowd of protesters carrying Tiki torches, waving Nazi flags, and sounding off anti-Semitic chants.
In his unhinged press conference, President Trump effectively defended fringe activists like Richard Spencer and David Duke. Taking sides with white nationalism was no longer taboo. The voices of racism had the power of the Oval Office in their corner. It was as if Andrew Johnson, the spiteful seventeenth president of the United States who was more interested in having former plantation owners come crawling to him to beg for clemency so that he would agree to return their property than he was in promoting the cause of racial equality, had just taken over after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was as if all the blood shed over the last century and a half on behalf of the cause of racial equality had been shed in vain.
Over the last year, I have read a lot of books and watched many documentaries on nineteenth-century America, both in the antebellum period and in the post-Civil War era. There are many topics and themes to explore in nineteenth-century America. Railroads. Industrialization. National Banks. Westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. The War of 1812 at the start of the century and the Spanish-American War at the end of the century. Bimetallism. Temperance. Suffrage. Populism. And so on. But what sometimes seems to supersede them all are the two original sins of American history: slavery and racism.
Slavery was the ‘peculiar institution’ which dominated much of Southern life in the first half of the nineteenth century (to be replaced by Jim Crow laws in the latter half of the century), but throughout the entire century, racism was endemic, pervasive, ugly, violent, and menacing. The Democratic Party, for example, was the party of slavery, but while many Northern Democrats broke from Southern Democrats to support the Union during the Civil War, it was their standard-bearer, prominent Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who left no ambiguity about where things stood when he stated during the first of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates: ‘I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.’
While sentiments about race may have varied across region, with many in the north content to exclude blacks while people in the south were intent on commanding blacks, the underlying belief in white supremacy was fundamental to the norms and beliefs to which people adhered in their everyday life. It was rare to find, even among abolitionists, anyone who harbored even a semblance of belief in racial equality, though perhaps not impossible, considering that abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said about Abraham Lincoln, as noted by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals, that Lincoln was ‘the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.’
Racism was a problem that would long post-date the eradication of slavery. It would take another century after the Civil War for black Americans to obtain basic civil rights, but emancipation was the first great victory in the long war against racial injustice in American history. Like the fight against racism, the fight against slavery came at great expense. Many of the Founding Fathers went against their conscience in failing to outlaw slavery, recognizing that the Constitution could not have been ratified without compromise because slavery was a part of the world in which they lived. Many of them assuaged their conscience with the belief that slavery would die a natural death at the hands of Providence, and, in one of the first steps toward that end, the slave trade was outlawed in 1808. It was only the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of King Cotton that gave new impetus to slavery in the nineteenth century, ultimately creating a bitter political divide between the Southern plantation aristocracy and Northern abolitionism. Passions reached a peak in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Compromise of 1820 and permitted the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska if new settlers, under the doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty’, voted in favor of it. The national conversation quickly became thoroughly engrossed in the great question of the age: whether or not to allow the expansion of slavery into the territories.
Northern Democrats would eventually break from the Southern Democrats over the matter. Free Soilers broke from both the Whigs and Democrats. ‘Conscience’ Whigs opposed slavery while ‘Cotton’ Whigs were willing to compromise to protect commercial relations with the South. Meanwhile, enthusiasm for the American Party of the 1850s, a consummation of Know-Nothing xenophobia against the Roman Catholicism of Irish and German immigrants, quickly dissipated as slavery became front and center on everyone’s mind. The Republican Party arose in 1854 as the most progressive party and was joined by radicals like Charles Sumner and former Whigs like William Seward and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom opposed slavery but who had nonetheless been schooled within an inherently racist society and thus likely never fully believed the black man was his equal. But one of them, Abraham Lincoln, was able to successfully balance competing factions in the nation and in his own party as he led the nation to victory in the Civil War and set the stage with his Emancipation Proclamation for the long-term realization of ‘radical’ goals like racial equality in a time when even many abolitionists were infected with the virus of belief in white supremacy.
Messy politics aside, the fight against slavery was not just a war of ideas. It was a war of blood and violence. The Civil War itself took the lives of hundreds of thousands of men in what was the deadliest war in American history (though death by disease was more likely for a soldier than death in battle). But before the Civil War there was chronic violence in Kansas. There was John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent hanging for the crime of treason. There was the progressive Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner who, two days after his ‘Crime Against Kansas’ speech in May 1856, suffered a crippling cane beating on the floor of the Senate at the hands of Preston Brooks of South Carolina (who was a relative of one of two Senators whom Sumner singled out for criticism in his speech). And then, once the war concluded and after the assassination of Lincoln, there were the soldiers of the defeated Confederacy who arrived back in the land of their devastated home states and violently resisted overthrow of the only society they knew.
The defeated South mounted a campaign of violent intimidation against black freedmen and white Americans who advocated on the freedmen’s behalf. The failure of Reconstruction was the result of many factors. But fundamentally, it was the direct result of a racist society, one in which many were willing to employ violence and intimidation to maintain white control of laws and institutions. The terrorism against blacks and their white allies was pervasive. There was organized violence against ‘scalywags’ (a slur for white Southerners who supported Reconstruction, black emancipation, and the Republican Party) and ‘carpetbaggers’ (a slur for white Northerners who moved to the South after the Civil War and allegedly sought to exploit Southern lands and property while undermining Southern culture by promoting Republican ideas like black emancipation) who believed blacks had a place in America that transcended their former place as slaves in the cotton fields.
There was a federal government that reneged on the promise of General William Sherman’s Field Order 15, an order to redistribute four hundred thousand acres of land to black freedmen (popularly known as ‘forty acres and a mule’ for black freedmen, it was overturned when President Andrew Johnson revoked it in the fall of 1865). There was outright murder of black Americans (according to this documentary on Reconstruction—see the 57:05 mark—in 1865, a reported 2,000 black men were reported murdered in Louisiana alone).
There was systematic exclusion of blacks through Jim Crow laws in the South and a culture in the North that was categorically unwelcome to blacks. There was, in short, a campaign of terror, violence, intimidation, and exclusion against black Americans, who merely wished to assert their newfound freedom.
Throughout all my studies, I could always take comfort knowing that the racism and violence of nineteenth-century America were in the past.
And then Charlottesville happened.
It was already clear to most sensible Americans that President Trump has been a moral abomination, if not when he announced his presidential campaign with a tirade against Mexican Americans, at least since he initially refused to disavow David Duke during the campaign last year. He has emboldened white nationalists, the KKK, and the worst elements of America’s racist past. But still, these groups were marginalized, and to a large extent, they still are. They are fringe elements, as witnessed by widespread condemnation of them throughout the country in the wake of Charlottesville.
But Trump’s chronic equivocation on race controversies in America has effectively given cover to these fringe elements, and within days of Charlottesville, I saw a video of Afro-Latina Univision journalist Ilia Calderon’s interview of Chris Barker, the ‘grand wizard’ of the Loyal White Knights faction of the KKK, in which Mr. Barker bluntly and unflappably calls the Ms. Calderon the N word and a ‘mongrel’, threatens to ‘burn’ her off his North Carolina property, and, when asked how he was going to ‘burn out’ eleven million immigrants, replied: ‘We killed six million Jews the last time. Eleven million is nothing.’
It is hard to believe that this voice of bigotry would find its way into the mainstream media had Trump never become president. As such, this moment was ominous and frightening. This was the sentiment of a man who lived in the South during the nineteenth-century (or in Germany under the Nazi regime). It was shocking to observe that, in 2017, there are still men who talk and think like racist ex-Confederates of the nineteenth-century (or Jew-hating Nazis). But in failing to do what any decent president would do in the aftermath of Charlottesville, President Trump emboldened this voice. Having petulantly and stubbornly insisted on apportioning blame for the violence in Charlottesville, he brought into the mainstream voices of evil and hate that I believed had long ago been relegated to the lunatic fringe.
There are many flaws with the militant Left. But now was not the time to focus on that. As Chris Deaton writes in The Weekly Standard:
Well, the “alt-left”—specifically individuals associated with antifa—aren’t necessarily swell. As Peter Beinart writes in the Atlantic, “for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists … can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed.” There have been many occasions on which to condemn the movement—it “has time and again plunged volatile situations into violence,” observes Ben Shapiro, “from Sacramento to Berkeley.” Don’t forget Portland, either. But there’s no reason to mention antifa in the context of white supremacists marching on Charlottesville. White supremacists were the instigators there. Their most extreme members, neo-Nazis, are the worst subgroup on both sides by an inestimable degree. There is no reason to compare or equivocate these people and Marxist militants. It’s okay to censure the “alt-left,” especially when its activists turn violent, in a different and proper context. And it’s okay for critics of the president to just leave it at that.
Trump may be too dumb or arrogant to know it, but in blaming ‘both sides’ for the violence in Charlottesville, and thus providing cover for the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates and white nationalists who burst out into the open at Charlottesville, he has done more than anyone else to weaken the taboo on white supremacy in America.
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