The scenes are depressingly familiar.
Men brandishing Confederate flags like weapons just inches away from protestors. It feels like only a split-second separates them from a full-on altercation. In the past, police have been able to pry them apart and defuse the situation, but in Charlottesville, Virginia, the police aren’t in the picture when the sides rush into each other in a swarm of clubs. There’s mace, pepper spray, and whoever finds themselves on the asphalt gets stomped.
In another video, a white nationalist smashes what looks like a board over the back of a fallen counter-protester.
In another, a woman gets punched in the face, darts forward to retaliate, but gets swallowed in the melee.
The footage cycles through all Saturday afternoon. Online videos show white supremacists marching in columns, carrying shields, guns, clubs, tire irons. Behind goggles and helmets, their eyes are peeled for altercations. They chant insults to “faggots” and “kikes.” Some carry the red, white, and black swastika flag of the National Socialist Party.
Then, someone on Twitter posts a stream from Periscope. They’re recording antifascists resting after a state of emergency has been declared and the march cleared out. There’s alarm off-screen as a ripple shudders through like a wave. A woman rises above and is thrown off the hood of a silver car that has just plowed through the crowd. The car slams into the back of another, pauses, and then races backward in reverse, leaving at least one person to die, another thirty-five injured, and a country to watch and wait with baited breath.
The first Trump rally I ever attended took place December 7th, 2015, aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. During the course of the speech, Trump, then an upstart candidate, announced his plan in reaction to the recent massacre in Paris: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
I hadn’t known what to expect. I’d started covering the election as part of a small project to procrastinate from writing an infuriating novel. When Donald Trump announced his intention to run for the presidency I’d reacted, much like most people, with disbelief. It felt like an unserious candidacy, a vanity project for one of the most vain individuals in all of America.
What I saw shook me to my core.
Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigration was met with riotous approval. Inside the aircraft carrier they cheered harder with every increasingly offensive thing he said. They surrounded protestors and intimidated them, seemed to be starving for a fight. Outside, they talked about Muslims, immigrants, and President Barack Obama, who they blamed for everything. They openly used racial slurs and abusive language, especially when they ran into protesters near the parking lot.
The two sides squared off while police separated them. Protesters chanted “Black lives matter” while supporters threatened to get their guns. One man came over to me, gestured at an out-of-commission turret gun nearby and then said, “I sure wish that thing was working right about now.”
My upcoming book The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore, a look at the 2016 Election and the cultural factors that led us into this catastrophic mess. The book is subtitled A Story of American Rage because, at its heart, rage is the propelling emotion of our time. In the years leading up to the contest, nearly everyone, regardless of walk of life or political persuasion, was burning with rage.
On the right, conservatives who had been fed a steady diet of propaganda for years that Barack Obama was a foreign-born despot were pissed that their representatives didn’t seem to be taking the threat seriously.
Liberals were still incensed at the system as a whole, a system that had favored big banks and corporations and led to a financial implosion.
Working class whites who had been hurt by that recession, and had suffered from the slow death of manufacturing and rural America, were pissed off too, and more than ready to have their worst, racist instincts played like an instrument.
Very young, very liberal voters who had been inspired by Barack Obama’s oratory but disappointed by his governing were angry with a party that seemed to favor Democratic stalwart Hillary Clinton over independent Bernie Sanders.
These groups, though wildly different, shared one opinion that would unite them in rage: that something was very wrong in America and the system, and especially its establishment, would be unable or unwilling to fix it.
Because their realities were so contrasting, they clashed against one another in the streets, where they battled over whose reality was more real, where they grinded against each other like tectonic plates rubbed raw on a tense fault line.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, I watched the Trump movement evolve. Whereas supporters had barely hesitated before, there they were feeding off one another.
Someone yelled that the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting “had it coming.”
They called Hillary Clinton a “bitch” while wearing vulgar, misogynistic shirts.
On the road by the Greensboro Coliseum, they tried to intimidate a Hispanic man displaying a Mexican flag.
After my reports went viral, these people threatened my life and showed up at my house in the middle of the night. The rage was intense when it focused. Like the hot sun through a magnifying glass. Members of the alt-right community and white supremacists trafficked in Nazi memes and talked openly about wanting to murder journalists like myself after Donald Trump had called us “the scum of the earth,” and some of the most dishonest people alive.
In Raleigh, they yelled that they wanted to see Clinton hang, that they wanted to shoot her for treason.
In Jacksonville, they shoved Confederate flags in minorities’ faces and begged them to fight.
In Charlotte they talked about murdering reporters and possibly overthrowing the government.
It was a scene that played over and over. At the conventions. The debates. At the inauguration, where a riot broke out after a limo was set on fire and cops hurled flashbangs in the street.
In person and on television, in conversations and online, a rage that had been hiding just below the surface of America for years had been let loose, and there seemed no real way to ever bottle it up again.
In the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville, the far-right sites are reacting in predictable fashion. The conspiratorially minded are calling it a false-flag operation meant to lead to a crackdown on conservatives. The white supremacists are celebrating. “Good,” one poster said on a forum when the death was announced. Others were chomping at the bit for a new civil war they’d been waiting on for years.
These posters, on Reddit, on 4Chan, on other far-right forums, make up the backbone for the alt-right, for the white nationalists, for the white supremacists. They discuss methods to attack opponents in debate and in combat. They fantasize about murdering people, hanging them from trees or dropping them out of helicopters like death squads in former dictatorships.
They maintain that the time for discussion is over. That this conflict is only beginning.
The violence we saw in Charlottesville, unfortunately, is just another incident in unabashed American rage. It’s there since before there was an America and it’s reared its head over the years, leading to murder, rape, and other unspeakable crimes.
In the past two years, we watched Donald Trump stoke that rage for his political benefit. He certainly didn’t create it, but he sure as hell unleashed it. Today we saw that rage take someone’s life.
It’s anyone’s guess what damage it will reek before we can contain it once more.
Jared Yates Sexton is an author and political correspondent who currently serves as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Politico, and elsewhere. His book The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage will be released by Counterpoint on August 15th.