As a society, we can no longer pretend that President Donald Trump does not bear the brunt of the responsibility for the violence that took place in Charlottesville over the weekend. And we can ill afford to continue to wear the rose-tinted glasses that mislead us into believing that domestic white terrorism is merely a cultural aberration.
What we saw Saturday has roots that go back 140 years, back to the Reconstruction Era, a time of horrendous racial strife and violence. White terrorism occupies a substantial position of American life, and if we are to ever move beyond its destructive grip, we need to prevent the rise of bigoted, race-baiting, aspiring authoritarians like Trump.
“The time has come for this to stop,” said Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer on Meet the Press. “This should be a turning point. This movement jumped the shark, and it happened yesterday. People are dying and I do think that it’s now on the president and on all of us to say ‘Enough is enough.’”
And while Signer is correct, America also cannot ignore the numerous other times that we could have stood up to Trump and white supremacists and instead chose to look the other way.
Throughout his campaign we allowed Trump to stoke racial divisions without vehement objections. The absurd demonization of Hillary Clinton consumed America with false equivalencies that manipulated the left and the right, and inclined us to ignore the racially motivated violence that Trump was orchestrating. Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, and other minorities were being harassed by Trump supporters, and collectively America either downplayed its significance or turned a blind eye.
America has spent well over a year either ignoring or legitimizing Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric, so the inevitability of Charlottesville should have been clear to see, yet it for many it was not. And even after the attack the trending hashtag on Twitter #ThisIsNotUs only further played into our cultural naivete.
The events of the weekend must require all Americans to further explore our nation’s history and come to terms with the pervasive, systematic racial oppression that has largely shaped this nation despite our proclamations of democracy and equality.
The rally in Charlottesville originated as a protest against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park—formerly named Robert E. Lee Park before the city council changed the name in June. The statue was erected in 1924, and it demonstrated how significant the movement of the Lost Cause has remained in American society.
Following the Civil War, the Redeemers and Bourbon Democrats who lamented the Lost Cause sought to depict Confederate generals and sympathizers as heroic figures who needed to be memorialized and celebrated. White Southerners embraced this narrative, and the fall of Reconstruction gave them the opportunity to erect these monuments.
Over the next 100 years roads, schools, parks, buildings, memorials, and more were dedicated to the Confederacy. Racism may have been relatively closeted, but monuments celebrating racism became rampant, and the narrative of the benevolent Confederate became normalized in American life.
Today’s white supremacists are implementing a widespread propaganda and terrorism campaign whose origins are over 150 years old, and we cannot counter this threat without reacquainting ourselves with our troubling national history.
Throughout Trump’s campaign I perceived the disturbing events as the unraveling of America’s second era of Reconstruction. The political shifts and racial tensions that dominated America due to the increased influence of black voters and specifically the mere existence of President Barack Obama brought about a political dynamic unseen since Reconstruction. Trump’s candidacy fit perfectly within this template.
Just as back then, Trump—a rich real-estate developer—represented the affluent, landowning class, the Redeemers, who partnered with white-supremacist groups and appealed to the economic anxieties of middle-class and poor whites (much of their anxiety stemmed from the emergence of a free black working class) to rise to political dominance.
Upon reclaiming control of the South, the Redeemers launched the era of Redemption that enabled the Lost Cause movement and manipulated democratic principles to oppress African Americans and other minorities.
Trump’s victory has commenced a second Redemption era, and the commitment of white supremacists and the alt-right to defend the movement of the Lost Cause only further reinforces this uncomfortable reality. White supremacists also terrorized New Orleans this year when Mayor Mitch Landrieu removed four Confederate monuments, and they have already planned more dangerous rallies following the tragedy in Charlottesville.
Additionally, the Trump administration’s attacks on voting rights, civil rights, education, the destruction of the social safety net, and more all mirror the political manipulations of the Redemption era that resulted in Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson.
America has a president who traffics in façade, so when moments of real leadership are required, we know that he will come up short. Both his Saturday and Sunday statements were insufficient, and as the White House attempts to present him as a strong leader, the Daily Stormer—a popular conservative, white-supremacist, neo-Nazi website—grows more emboldened.
We all know that Trump is anything but a student of history, so he may be merely a weak political pawn with a juvenile craving for attention who remains completely unaware of the dangerous historical currents he is feeding into. But white inadequacy or ignorance can no longer be an excuse for white terrorism. Trump’s ignorance and/or white-supremacist motives are dangerous either way.
We must confront Trump’s weakness, his dangerous ignorance, and the terroristic threat of his supporters by reacquainting ourselves with the dark cultural currents that continue to destroy American lives. If we don’t confront the unsavory truths of American society, we will have enabled the dangers of Trump, white supremacists, and another tragedy like Charlottesville.