Trump, Charlottesville and the Alt-Right: The Fire This Time

Trump, Charlottesville and the Alt-Right: The Fire This Time

Aghast at the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks to history, psychology and contemporary politics to try to understand what happened and why it took President Trump two tries to even get close to expressing a sense of moral outrage.

In 1963, James Baldwin’s letter-to-his-nephew-turned-extended-essay, The Fire Next Time, written on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, had ratcheted up the emotional and moral energy and purpose in urgent but literary terms of the American civil rights movement. Given our current circumstances, is no longer the next time any more.

Steven Thrasher, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, on the occasion of the publication of a new edition of Baldwin’s classic, has written,

In the letter’s penultimate paragraph, Baldwin writes: ‘This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.’ It is rhythmically similar to Trump’s red-hatted mantra – but there’s a big difference between trying to make America ‘great again’ and focusing on what it once was, rather than what it ‘must become’.”

This weekend, in the historic university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, that fire broke out again. The flames have mesmerised (and horrified) a nation, drawing on some of the still-unsettled business of the civil rights revolution, all mixed together with the new angers and rages given a new fire and fury by the advent of Donald Trump’s politics in American life.

The ostensible match that lit this flame was one left over from the aftermath of the American Civil War, a conflict fought over a century and a half ago. The South was ultimately forced to give up the enslavement of millions of African-Americans; but most southerners turned this loss on the battlefield and the end of a way of life into a glorious lost cause underscored with an elegiac melancholy in literature, slogans such as “The South Will Rise Again”, and the political domination in that region by whites in a racialised political-economy that eventually came to be echoed in South Africa’s own evolution. As part of this increasingly pervasive mythology and the exercise of racial political power, the Southern elite constructed legion of statues and monuments that glorified Confederate generals and the many battles fought across the 11 states of the rebellious Confederacy – from Texas to Virginia.

No Southern general was more revered than Robert E Lee, whose strategic brilliance, tactical genius, and personal code of honour came to embody all of the supposed characteristics of the South, its lost cause and its post-war humiliation. Statues in his honour blossomed across the South, a university was named after him, his life was immortalised in dozens of biographies – and he garnered sympathetic portrayals in films such as The Killer Angels.

Charlottesville, Virginia is the site of the University of Virginia, one of the most renowned and respected universities in the US. Thomas Jefferson – former secretary of state, vice president and then president, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and contributor to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – was a co-founder of the university, the convenor of the organisers, and designer of its original campus. Beginning in 1819, the new school was among the first that did not require students or staff members to embrace a religious test or catechism. Historically, while it was a racially segregated institution, it began its integration before most Southern ones – and even a few Northern ones. The surrounding town is nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and it gains many visitors for its scenic qualities, let alone its educational importance.

But, in common with many Southern places, there has been a simmering dispute in Charlottesville for some years over the disposition of its larger than life statue of Robert E Lee on his statuesque horse. A city council decision had been taken to remove it from the public park it sits in, now named Emancipation Park but formerly (Robert E) Lee Park, but what to do with the heroic statue or where to put it later has remained a controversy – occasionally a heated one.

Now, enter the various white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, skin-heads, Ku Klux Klan enthusiasts, and assorted other white nationalists or worse who organised a mass rally in Charlottesville during the university’s summer break period, ostensibly in support of the Lee statue, but, in reality, using this opportunity to advocate the various versions of the particularly ugly, virulent white nationalist ideologies they advocate. Not surprisingly, this planned demonstration, the demonstrators and their views, became the inspiration for those opposed to these various hate groups such as Black Lives Matter, to come together in the same streets of Charlottesville in order to protest against the looming hate group march.

As the two crowds collided, there was pushing, shoving, and punching as the two sides met – with town, county and state police largely out of sight in the side streets during the initial melee. Then, as the main group of hate-groupers were beginning to disperse, out of nowhere, a young man – 20-year-old James Alex Fields – drove his car into the crowd of anti-hate group protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others. This attack was a grim echo of the vehicles-as-weapons tactic being seen in Europe and the UK, as perpetrated by various individuals, presumably acting on behalf of Islamist terror ideals. (Two state police officers also died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the demonstration.)

The fatalities and casualties were bad enough, but the fighting, the noxious posters and the self-laudatory public statements by the organisers of the original march such as David Duke (a self-described KKK leader but also an unsuccessful, wannabe elected official) have reached around the world via international news television and social media. This is helping paint a picture of an America now increasingly beset with racial animosities and besieged by racist hate groups. All of this is an echo of the Islamist furies elsewhere.

Expressions of racism and ethnic hatred are not new in America, of course, even if one doesn’t accept the idea that it is intrinsically woven deep into the national fabric. Often tied to anti-immigration or anti-foreigner platforms, it has been around for generations and politicians have often chosen to tap into this anger and resentment in order to pursue electoral victories.

Psychologist Richard Hofstadter’s path-breaking essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, first published in 1964 in Harper’s Magazine, explained the rage and paranoia of such groups. He argued,

In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind…. the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

But the triumph of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election represented a new high water mark for such politics, drawing upon the rage of largely working class and lower middle class white voters who believed they saw their isolation and looming destruction coming at the hands of ethnic minorities, immigrants, African-Americans, bi-coastal urban elites, big, uncaring banks and corporations, an uninterested government, and too many other enemies to list.

Trump’s success was, of course, built on fertile ground. It drew its potency from the impact of right-wing talk radio, syndicated talk television, Fox News TV broadcasters, social media and internet sources, and the impact of former Alaska Governor and vice presidential nominee in 2008 Sarah Palin.

Taken together, old-style hate groups, new media and the alt-right gave force to the resentment, even as the Trump 2016 campaign – with its vicious rants against so many – gave such expressions a cachet for groups to see themselves as legitimate social protest and political action. In the language of the left, they gained agency, and felt themselves empowered to express their views, and to take direct physical action if necessary as well to make their points.

By the time this confrontation had wound itself down and the casualties had occurred, most rational politicians were denouncing the original demonstration and the violence it had encompassed, and criticising the president for a particularly anodyne “everybody is at fault” statement, saying, “The hate and the division must stop and must stop now. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.” What, exactly, does this egregious false equivalence say about the president’s personal values, one is pushed to contemplate?

The president has stood in contrast to his hair-trigger critiques of so many others, domestic and foreign, including those in his own party and administration. By contrast, Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer told television viewers, “You know, I don’t want to make this too much about Donald Trump, we have a lot of grieving, a lot of work to do as a city and as a country, but he should look in the mirror. I mean, he made a choice in his presidential campaign, the folks around with him, to, you know, go right to the gutter, to play on our worst prejudices. And I think you are seeing a direct line from what happened here this weekend to those choices. He has the opportunity, as do we all, to have a fresh beginning.”

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe told the skinheads and neo-Nazis to just go home and leave everyone the heck alone. McAuliffe’s words were direct in contrast to the president’s moral waffle: Our message is plain and simple: Go home. You are not wanted in this great town.”

Republicans such as Colorado Senator Cory Gardner tweeted, “Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” And he followed this up on television, saying, “I think the president needs to step up today and … call it for what it is. It’s evil, it’s white nationalism, it’s bigotry and it’s unacceptable. And if he doesn’t do that, we can continue to answer the question of why. But I believe he has a chance to do that today.” And GOP Congresswoman from Florida Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “White supremacists, Neo-Nazis and anti-Semites are the antithesis of our American values. There are no other ‘sides’ to hatred and bigotry.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio added, Nothing patriotic about #Nazis, the #KKK or #WhiteSupremicists It’s the direct opposite of what #America seeks to be. #Charlottesville”; and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch noted, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.” In contrast to the president’s astonishing moral tone-deafness and inability to speak sensibly about values and groups that are antithetical to historical American values, even the president’s spouse managed a straightforward condemnation, tweeting, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”

Meanwhile, former President Obama issued a rare personal tweet, quoting the late Nelson Mandela, writing, “ ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion…’ … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love… For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’ ”

In the meantime, President Trump’s rhetorical stumble and moral obtuseness has been seized on as a triumph by some of the participating hate groups. For example, The Daily Stormer, a virulent neo-Nazi publication, argued, “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides! So he implied the antifa [anti-fascists] are haters. There was virtually no counter-signalling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.” [Readers can pause for a wave of nausea moment.]

And Alt-right torchbearer (and one of the key figures in the haters’ march) Richard Spencer smirked that he was outraged by what he said was a lack of police protection of their bold, stalwart crew of haters. “I have never been so outraged at my government,” he said, in speaking to a crowd of around 100 supporters who had moved to another park after Emancipation Park had been cleared. Spencer went on to say, “We are never backing down. We are going to be back here….” Oh good, a promise of more trouble for the rest of the summer.

After his thorough drubbing by Republicans and Democrats, the White House finally got around to a second statement on Sunday that read, “The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”

An exasperated EJ Dionne finally wrote of this dancing in the White House for his column in The Washington Post,

It should not have taken the death and injury of innocents to move our nation toward moral clarity. It should not have taken President Trump’s disgraceful refusal to condemn white supremacy, bigotry and Nazism to make clear to all who he is and which dark impulses he is willing to exploit to maintain his hold on power.

Those of us who are white regularly insist that the racists and bigots are a minority of us and that the white-power movement is a marginal and demented faction. This is true, and the mayhem in Charlottesville called forth passionate condemnations of blood-and-soil nationalism across the spectrum of ideology. These forms of witness were a necessary defence of the American idea and underscored the shamefulness of Trump’s embrace of moral equivalence.

There are not, as Trump insisted Saturday, ‘many sides’ to questions that were settled long ago: Racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination and white supremacy are unequivocally wrong.”

Well, yes, okay, the White House’s second try was a bit better, but why should it have taken the White House two tries to even get to the point of mentioning hate groups? Conservative columnist Michael Gerson, in trying to diagnose the failure of the Trump presidency in grasping the core of this issue, wrote in the same newspaper,

One of the difficult but primary duties of the modern presidency is to speak for the nation in times of tragedy. A space shuttle explodes. An elementary school is attacked. The twin towers come down in a heap of ash and twisted steel. It falls to the president to express something of the nation’s soul — grief for the lost, sympathy for the suffering, moral clarity in the midst of confusion, confidence in the unknowable purposes of God.

Not every president does this equally well. But none have been incapable. Until Donald Trump.

Trump’s reaction to events in Charlottesville was alternately trite (‘come together as one’), infantile (‘very, very sad’) and meaningless (‘we want to study it). ‘There are so many great things happening in our country,’ he said, on a day when racial violence took a life.

At one level, this is the natural result of defining authenticity as spontaneity. Trump and his people did not believe the moment worthy of rhetorical craft, worthy of serious thought. The president is confident that his lazy musings are equal to history. They are not. They are babble in the face of tragedy. They are an embarrassment and disservice to the country.

The president’s remarks also represent a failure of historical imagination. The flash point in Charlottesville was the history of the Civil War. Cities around the country are struggling with the carved-stone legacy of past battles and leaders. The oppression and trauma that led to Appomattox did not end there. Ghosts still deploy on these battlefields. And the casualties continue.

And the answer to this failure to comprehend may be found in the fact that such people voted solidly for Trump in the presidential election – or have sympathisers among his voters and supporters – and there is a likely fear on the part of advisers like Steve Bannon that annoying or criticising such people is very bad electoral and public opinion news for the president. And that also means that even if those who are aghast at such groups and their behaviour will be further angered at Donald Trump and what he stands for, such people are unlikely to have supported him in the first place.

This kind of game playing with the national psyche is just dreadful news for any attempt to bring a divided nation together. And it should not be forgotten that all of this is taking place as the president threatens “fire and fury” upon North Korea, hints at a military option in Venezuela, and plans trade punishments against China and must wrestle with the impact of the newest sanctions regimen directed at Russia, let alone any possibilities of success in his legislative agenda. Surely it is well past time for the president to begin to govern – and stop posturing, smirking, sniggering and threatening everyone who doesn’t kowtow to him at the first tee at his private club in Bedminster, New Jersey. DM

Photo: Virginia State Police keep crowds back after Jason Kessler, organiser of the Unite the Right rally, had to be rushed away after a press conference at City Hall in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, 13 August 2017. According to media reports at least one person was killed and 19 injured after the car hit a crowd of people counter-protesting the Unite the Right rally which was scheduled to take place in Charlottesville on 12 August. At least 15 others were injured in clashes during protests. EPA/TASOS KATOPODIS


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Daily Maverick The Gathering 2024 banner

Daily Maverick has secured an esteemed speaker line-up...

to help make sense of Elections 2024.

Trevor Manuel, Prof Thuli Madonsela and Minister Ronald Lamola are among the latest panellists confirmed for Daily Maverick The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four.

Join us, on Thurs 14 March 2024 at CTICC Cape Town or online wherever you are, for an event that will put the election in perspective.

Make your taxes work for you

Donate to Daily Maverick’s non-profit arm, the Scorpio Investigative Unit, by 29 February 2024 and you’ll qualify for a tax break.

We issue Section 18A tax certificates for all donations made to Daily Maverick. These can be presented to SARS for tax relief.

Make your donation today

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

A new community Actionist every week.

Meet the South Africans making a difference. Get Maverick Citizen in your inbox.