A controversy is raging in the United States, and internationally, in the aftermath of the white supremacist marches, assaults, threats, and near takeover of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12. Their “Unite the Right” demonstrations led to the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32-year old white counter-demonstrator, when a neo-Nazi drove a car into the counter-demonstration—a deliberate act of domestic terrorism. Nineteen other people were injured by the car, and another 15 were injured in separate assaults.
President Trump expressed his dismay at the death but blamed “many sides.” It took him until Monday, two days later, to call out the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK (the infamous Ku Klux Klan, who have terrorized African-Americans ever since Emancipation). He read out the words condemning them from his teleprompter, without conviction. Then, on Tuesday, in a rant-filled press conference devoted to clarifying his position, he asserted that the “Unite the Right” demonstrators included “many” “very fine people” and reverted to his initial claim that “both sides” were to blame for the violence. His absurd equation of fascists with those protesting them is now the focus of debate throughout the country and elsewhere. Leaders of Britain and Germany have spoken out against Trump for this.
Once again, American racism has stolen the headlines away from world events, even from the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea. With echoes of the 1950s and 1960s, racism has become the central issue for Trump’s America. Tragically, we are moving in the opposite direction from the period of the Civil Rights Movement; white supremacists are attempting to affect a counter-revolution against African-Americans’ gains in justice and equal rights––and the President agrees with them. Today, the question before the U.S. is: Will we let Trump get away with fomenting white supremacy and racist violence?
The Resistance movement that has opposed Trump from the day he took office is answering “No!” In the first two days following the white supremacist march and murder, more than 900 protests against Trump and the white supremacists took place around the U.S. Large protests occurred in Seattle on Sunday and at Trump Tower in New York City on Monday. Other forms of fightback against white supremacists are also intensifying, as will be discussed below.
The White-Supremacist Violence
The facts speak clearly and loudly against Trump’s attempt to blame the violence in Charlottesville on “both sides” and against his characterization of “many” of the “Unite the Right” demonstrators as “very fine people” who are not white nationalists.
Charlottesville had been chosen for the “largest ever” white supremacist rally because of its history of African-American activism and its decision to remove a public statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. (See earlier With Sober Senses article here.)
It is important to understand that the Lee statue, and the other monuments to Confederate “heroes,” are not apolitical commemorations of U.S. history. They were erected in order to celebrate and communicate the fact that, even though the South lost the Civil War, white supremacy was re-established in the decades that followed. Those who protest the removal of these monuments are protesting the effort to eradicate the legacy and persistence of white supremacy. This is what Trump was alluding to when, on Tuesday, he complained that removal of such monuments is “changing culture.”
The white supremacists began their violence and intimidation on Friday, August 11, the night before the scheduled march, when they occupied the University of Virginia campus, marching in formation, giving Nazi salutes, and brandishing Tiki torches along with weapons and shields, in evocation of both KKK night-riders and Hitler rallies. They shouted “white power” and Nazi slogans such as “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” (which means “kill the Jews”). Their aim was to intimidate counter-protesters in advance, and they physically attacked a gathering of clergy in a park.
To stop the assaults, hundreds of counter-protesters—religious leaders, Black Lives Matter activists, and anti-fascist groups (commonly called “antifa”)—quickly surrounded the park, singing spirituals, chanting and carrying their own signs. Scholar and activist Cornel West told the newscast “Democracy Now!” that anti-fascists saved his life and the lives of other nonviolent clergy members in Charlottesville. “We would have been crushed like cockroaches were it not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists,” he said on the show. “You had police holding back and just allowing fellow citizens to go at each other.”
On Saturday, the racist-fascists marched through the city—carrying shotguns or rifles or wearing large knives—and virtually took it over. (Virginia law permits weapons to be carried openly in most public places.) They carried shields and wore helmets, which bore Nazi and Confederate insignia. Many also wore pro-Trump stickers, clothing and signs. They attacked the counter-demonstrators with clubs and flagpoles and their fists. They fought the police as well as the counter-demonstrators.
They had clearly come to set off a fight—a race war to reverse the gains of African-Americans over the past several decades, if not to slaughter or re-enslave them. Yet the police did little to stop the violence.
Leaders of the march immediately vowed to return “1000 times if needed.” One white supremacist leader, Jason Kessler, tried to give a public speech on Sunday. He was out-shouted and then rushed by a crowd of anti-racist protesters, and had to be saved by the police.
These facts are clearly recorded on video and affirmed by eyewitnesses. They give the lie to Trump’s version of the facts that the counter-demonstrators were just as violent as the white supremacists.
Murder of Heather Heyer
By now, the whole world knows that these racist-fascists incited a neo-Nazi to murder Heather Heyer, a local paralegal who was active in civil rights causes and abhorred the white supremacists’ message and aggression in her home town.
The counter-demonstrators were largely unarmed and peaceful. Clergy came from all over. The police, trying to separate the two demonstrations, had channeled the counter-demonstrators into a narrow street. That allowed the car-turned-murder-weapon to hit so many of them.
The domestic terrorist who drove the car was James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old, openly neo-Nazi, man from Ohio. He was not a lone nut; he had been seen earlier in the day marching in one of the neo-Nazi contingents, wearing its uniform, and bearing its shield (see photo below). After the murder, Fields was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Sunday that it would investigate the matter, after initially remaining silent. It could prosecute Fields for committing a hate crime and for domestic terrorism, while the state can “only” charge him with murder and assault, which it has done. However, since the Justice Department is now in the hands of Trump and Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions––whose first and middle names commemorate the president of the Confederacy and one of its leading generals––some commentators are worried that it might decide to go after “both sides.”
Immediately after the murder, Trump addressed the country, not to condemn the racists but to say, “We condemn all hatred, violence and bigotry––on many sides.” On many sides? This statement blamed peaceful counter-demonstrators for the attack upon them. And it created a false moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those who demonstrated against them, all of whom oppose hatred and bigotry, and most of whom advocate tolerance and love.
Trump also claimed that the allegedly many-sided hatred, bigotry and violence “has been going on for a long time in our country––not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama.” This was a rebuke of those who have warned about the recent resurgence of white-supremacist violence and have blamed it on Trump’s campaign and electoral-college victory.
Yet despite his effort to absolve himself of responsibility, Trump has a long history of racism. As a landlord in Queens and Brooklyn, New York in the 1960s and 1970s, he faithfully carried out his father’s policy of refusing to rent to Blacks. In 1989, he called for the death penalty to be reinstated, in order to execute five young Black men falsely accused and convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park. (And even though their convictions were vacated 15 years ago, Trump still refuses to accept their innocence.) He launched his political career in 2011 when he spearheaded the “birther” campaign against Barack Obama, insisting that Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be president. And during his presidential campaign, and as president, he has made numerous non-so-subtle comments about Chicago and Detroit, poor people, and Black communities.
After intense outcry throughout the country, and pressure from many of his advisors (notably not including Steve Bannon), Trump read some mitigating words off the teleprompter on Monday. He said that racism is “evil,” he denounced the “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups,” he called the Charlottesville violence “racist,” and he expressed “grief” over the murder of Heather Heyer. While this performance gave his defenders some tools to work with in their attempt to quell the outrage against his remarks of Saturday, one would have to be deliberately obtuse to think that Trump meant any of it. Leading neo-Nazi Richard Spencer correctly characterized the statement as “kumbaya nonsense” and said that “only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
Nonetheless, opponents of racism and fascism had achieved a modest victory against Trump. He was forced to say at least some of the right things––clearly against his will. He had also had to bow to the advice of White House staffers.
For the win-obsessed Trump, the humiliation was too great. He struck back on Tuesday, during a press conference, going into what the New York Times called a “rant.” In addition to drawing a false moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those who demonstrated against them in Charlottesville, as he had on Saturday, Trump made a point of refusing to call the murder of Heather Heyer an act of domestic terrorism. He also criticized the removal of Confederate monuments that celebrate the re-establishment of white supremacy after the Civil War.
He even equated statues of George Washington and statues of Robert E. Lee, though the former headed the army that won the U.S. its independence, while the latter headed the enemy army of states that seceded from and attacked the U.S. Which country does Trump think he is the president of? More importantly, does he want to turn the U.S. into a new Confederacy?
Standing by his side during this rant were three members of his Cabinet. One is an Asian-American woman; two are Jewish men.
Trump Encourages Fascists
When Trump condemned “all hatred, violence and bigotry” on Saturday, Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, noted that this was merely an abstract condemnation of “disembodied hate,” not a concrete condemnation of the white-supremacist violence perpetrated in Charlottesville. That was undoubtedly deliberate on Trump’s part. He had, and has, the support of some of the very groups that perpetrated the violence, and he is obviously worried about losing their support amid his increasingly falling poll numbers. When a reporter asked him point-blank on Sunday whether he accepts support from neo-Nazis, he refused to answer.
The white supremacists praised his Saturday statement because Trump did not criticize them by name—everyone knows what that omission means: wink, wink. In fact, they publicly touted his statement as a big victory; they thanked and praised him.
“Unite the Right” spokespeople are now blaming the police as well as the counter-protesters for the violence, and they vow to return to Charlottesville for more marches. Newly emboldened white supremacists are planning similar demonstrations all over the country, starting this coming weekend. They have made clear that they intend to start race riots and a race war.
Some are planning to run for public office. Others, taking a cue from the Charlottesville event—which was nominally a protest over the planned removal of a Confederate-era statue—are organizing efforts to preserve “white heritage” symbols in their home regions. Preston Wiginton, a Texas-based white nationalist, declared on Saturday that he planned to hold a “White Lives Matter” march on September 11, on the campus of Texas A&M University, with Richard Spencer as keynote speaker.
These racist-fascist people have come out from under ground, have put on khakis and polo shirts instead of sheets, and have gotten a following among youth, certainly in part due to Trump’s presidency. At last count, there were 917 hate groups in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors them, and the number is increasing. The number of hate crimes has risen steeply in the last few years, especially since Trump’s election.
There can be no doubt that Trump has emboldened the white supremacists. David Duke, a former imperial wizard (top official) of the Ku Klux Klan, told reporters on Saturday that the protesters were “going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back.” (He was echoing a Trump campaign slogan.) After Trump’s Tuesday statement about the violence and “bad people” being “on both sides,” Duke publicly thanked him again for “telling the truth about the left terrorists.”
During his campaign for president, and since he assumed office, Trump has indicated his sympathy with and support for white-supremacist groups. Specifically, he has failed to denounce racism and anti-Semitism; he has promoted white-supremacist ideas; he has defunded and weakened anti-racist agencies and rules; and he has brought into the White House, as close advisors, people associated with white-nationalist movements. His designated Chief Strategist is Steve Bannon, who was previously the head of “alt-right” platform Breitbart News. Others in Trump’s inner circle share Bannon’s far-right, white-nationalist orientation: Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka and Michael Anton. They are undoubtedly encouraging Trump to make his fantastic accusations against the counter-demonstrators; they are proponents of “alternate truth”––that is, lies––as well as racists and neo-fascists.
What Happens Next?
Following Trump’s Tuesday press conference, the outcry and protests have become more intense and broader. By Wednesday, more than half of the executives on Trump’s advisory council on manufacturing had quit, and his Strategy and Policy advisory council had decided to disband, so Trump abolished both councils in a snit. Congresspeople and governors have issued statements that strongly condemn the white supremacists and acknowledge that the murder of Heather Heyer was domestic terrorism.
Yet not one Republican office-holder has denounced Trump’s courting of the white supremacists, and not one White House staffer has resigned. In contrast, three Democrats in the House of Representatives have introduced a bill to “censure and condemn President Donald Trump … for re-asserting that ‘both sides’ were to blame and excusing the violent behavior of participants in the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, and for employing people with ties to white supremacist movements in the White House, such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.”
The fightback against white supremacists is also intensifying. Some of the participants in the “Unite the Right” demonstrations have been identified and “outed” on the internet, and some are being fired from their jobs.
On Monday, the father of an avowed white nationalist publicly denounced him and banned him from family gatherings. On Wednesday, the University of Florida turned down a request by Richard Spencer, the prominent neo-Nazi, to hold an event at the university. The denial of the request came about as a result of a quick and intense post-Charlottesville pressure campaign spearheaded by National Women’s Liberation, Women’s March organizers, and several campus, community, union, and other groups. National Women’s Liberation dismissed talk of Spencer’s “free speech rights,” pointing out that “[p]lanned violence is not free speech; Richard Spencer was an inciter of violence in Charlottesville[,] and a local Gainesville [Florida] white supremacist who was also arrested in Charlottesville even argues for the ‘killing of leftists.’”
On Monday night in Durham, North Carolina, anti-racists pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier. On Wednesday morning, the mayor of Baltimore had its four Confederate statues secretly removed “in the interests of public order.” Some 1500 such statues remain across the South; they are now the focus of coming confrontations between racists and their opponents. Many demonstrations are planned by the racists and the anti-racists for the next days and weeks. Not only are African, Jewish and civil rights groups calling for protests, but so are many others—feminists, veterans, tenants’ rights groups, students, to mention just a few who have made statements already.
There is no way to “soften” Trump’s statements of Saturday and Tuesday, and no way to mistake his purpose: to throw his full support behind white supremacism. The calls to oust him from the Presidency have become even more urgent than before.
One year ago, we warned in an editorial that
The backbone of [Trump’s] campaign are appeals to racism, nativism, xenophobia, and sexism. Despite Trump’s recent vague doubletalk, he has—as everyone knows–vowed to build a wall across the Mexican border and force Mexico to pay for it, and to ban Muslim immigration. Even if he is defeated on November 8, the racist, xenophobic movement he has created—Trumpism—is likely to persist and it is questionable whether the flimsy institutions of U.S. bourgeois democracy are any match for it.
The allegedly “anti-establishment” and “anti-elite” character of Trumpism doesn’t make his racism and chauvinism any less despicable or more deserving of “understanding.” Any and every discussion of Trump and Trumpism that fails to denounce their racism, sexism, and xenophobia clearly, loudly, and without qualification—without ifs, ands, or buts—is complicit with them. There are no mitigating circumstances. There is no silver lining. There is just willingness to tolerate racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
At the time, many alleged “leftists” dismissed this warning, asserting that Hillary Clinton and “neoliberalism” were the main enemies, or at least that Trump would not actually be so bad once he took office and “pivoted.” But every word we wrote has come true.
Those who thought he would not carry out what he promised were woefully naïve regarding the fascist strain in U.S. politics. And he was elected in part due to their refusal to take seriously the extent of extraordinary dangers of Trump and Trumpism, and their refusal to take action to prevent it when they could. Now we have a racist anti-Semite with full state power in his hands and white-supremacist ideologues in his ear. His remarks about Chalottesville are right in line with who he is and what he plans to do to the country.
We certainly hope that Trump will self-destruct when independent investigations reveal his criminal business history and his actions on behalf of Vladimir Putin’s far-right, authoritarian regime. But we cannot count on any part of the U.S. government to rescue us. It did not prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination, or from becoming president. It did not, in the end, force him to repudiate his vile response to the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville. It is dominated by a Republican Congress that has shown no willingness to stand up to Trump, mostly because “the base” is Trumpite, not mainstream Republican, and Republicans’ electoral prospects depend crucially on retaining the support of the base.
Our real hope lies with the Resistance that can bring Trump down. The outcry against his courting of white supremacists has already caused him to flip-flop, however temporarily, and it has widened divisions among Republicans and within his administration. Millions of people denouncing and exposing him, and taking to the streets to demand his ouster, can cause him to flee the White House. The turnout at the counter-demonstration in Charlottesville and turnout at subsequent anti-white-supremacist protests have included people who never demonstrated before but who were shocked into action by the white-supremacist marches. The already-clear political divide in the U.S. is growing deeper.
We are living the consequences, 150 years later, of the failure of the Civil War and Reconstruction to uproot the plague of racism. (See the Marxist-Humanist statement of 1963, American Civilization on Trial.) The Civil War, sometimes called the “second American revolution,” was as incomplete a social revolution as was the first revolution against colonialism. U.S. society remains divided and, courtesy of Trump and Trumpism, there are now more people on the side of the “haters” than we had thought possible. We need to do what it takes to stop Trump from fomenting white supremacy and racist violence NOW, and to uproot them permanently.
Regarding the events of Charlottesville and the attempts by the right, to make a false equation between the anti-racist left and the alt right, I find that “American Civilisation on Trial” and this link to James Baldwin debating William Buckley on “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” to be very prescient.
Thanks for this editorial.
I’ve just reread it in tandem with Brendan Cooney’s “Against Left Economic Populism,” which also indicates a way to understand and situate presidential power and presidential politics within the system of capitalist production and its failure.
“Not by politics alone,” as Kliman once wrote. But if “once again American racism has stolen the headlines from world events,” this would be not only because American society is built on racist foundations,but also because Trump is in fact the President. Hence, the “extraordinary danger” of this present moment.
In his paper at the Left Forum, Kliman reasoned his way to the conclusion that “Donald Trump = George Wallace.”
This is something one has to stop and think about. But Floyd Codlin’s link to the 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley does call to mind the cliche, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Buckley is disgusting, but he has a better vocabulary than either Wallace or Trump, so his dime-store ideas conjure a certain semblance of intellect not quite subtle enough, side by side the unchained brilliance of Baldwin, to conceal a vulgarity and an insult no less in the gutter than Trump’s remarks about women.
2017 as 1968: “the first time as tragedy,the second time as farce.” George Wallace was already a parody of himself when he ran for president in 1968;so Trump is the parody of a parody.
But as farcical as our circumstances are now, Alec Baldwin’s caricature still falls short of the real and present danger and “the fire next time.”
This is a great editorial, very thorough. The real difficulty for the Resistance in bringing down Trump is that it will likely require impeachment which will either require Republicans to break ranks or require Republicans to be voted out of office in the mid-terms. I fear the anti-Trump vote will be split again by Bernies and Greens who think this is their moment.