Charlottesville didn’t prop up out of nowhere. The United States has a serious problem with systematic racism in our culture and society which should surprise no one. After all, the US was built on slavery, colonialism, Native American genocide, and white supremacy. Though we liken white supremacy as a fringe ideology only embraced by extremists, it remains firmly established as a cultural value that white people don’t want to acknowledge. Whenever there’s progress in achieving racial equality such as in outlawing slavery and civil rights, there’s always a fierce white resentment and backlash at every turn. Even today, calling out a white person’s racist behavior, beliefs, or any racial injustice will result in vicious defensive retaliation. Sometimes it might lead to whites developing a reverse racism persecution complex. Sometimes it might lead to blaming minorities for their problems beyond their control due to a steady diet of racist dog whistles they accept as mere facts of life. And sometimes it might lead to mainstream culture ignoring systemic problems disproportionately affecting minority communities as well as denying a possible national crisis. I understand white people would rather not talk about racism since they benefit from their white privilege whether they’re willing to admit it or not. But at the same time, many don’t see a problem with adopting disparaging views on minorities and immigrants. Nevertheless, while acknowledging systematic white supremacy in our nation can be extremely difficult for a white American to address, identifying and denouncing white supremacist terrorism shouldn’t be. In fact, it’s the easiest anti-racist thing a white person can do since it’s white supremacy in its most blatant and ugliest form.
And yet, Donald Trump still struggled to condemn the white supremacist attacks on Charlottesville, preferring to blame the violence on “many sides” instead on the white nationalists most responsible for it. However, Trump’s lackluster remarks aren’t surprising since white supremacists comprise a key part of his base he sees no problem pandering to them. He’s also had a ridiculously long and consistent history of racist behavior ranging from discriminatory rental practices during the 1970s, calling for the Central Park Five’s execution and still believing their nonexistent guilt, disparaging Native American casino owners during a congressional hearing in a series of ads, and promoting baseless Obama conspiracy theories like birtherism. Bigoted statements and actions feature heavily in Trump’s public life and career and were critical to his political rise to the presidency. As president, he’s kept up with the vulgar racist rhetoric as well as enacted inherently racist and xenophobic policies. But for a man known for viciously attacking people he doesn’t like, his responses to white supremacy have often been vague, indifferent, and uncharacteristic like he doesn’t really mean what he’s said. Trump may claim he’s “the least racist person that you’ve ever encountered” but his bigotry isn’t just mere political opportunism but a real element in his personality, character, and career. The fact Trump could win the presidency running a campaign catering to hostile sexism and racial resentment understates how widespread and insidious racism in America really is.
Another reason why Donald Trump struggled on Charlottesville is the fact he’s a self-absorbed prick who will do whatever it takes to come out on top as long as the consequences don’t affect him personally. He doesn’t care if he has to break rules, longstanding norms, or even laws to get what he wants. He doesn’t give a damn about the moral implications of his actions or any long-term damage he’s inflicted on the country. Others’ pain, suffering, or ruination don’t concern him. If Trump wanted to build a golf course on a stretch of land populated by forests and homes, he’d set fire to the whole place and let it burn to the ground if he knew he could get away with it. And it’s this unapologetic opportunism that makes him extremely dangerous. Why? Because while racism is a systematic and pervasive influence in our society, most politicians wouldn’t dare resort to virulent racist stereotypes at rallies or pander to white supremacists. Trump has no such moral compunctions. If horrific racist rhetoric and pandering to white supremacists attract voters, then Trump will keep at it regardless of how it affects America. White supremacists comprise a key part of his base and he will do absolutely anything to retain their support. He doesn’t care if it arouses their worst impulses and emboldens them to inflict violence on other Americans. It doesn’t matter to him if he undermines American values and legitimizes white nationalism. It doesn’t concern him if pandering to white supremacists leaves millions of Americans living in fear for their lives. Nor does he give a damn if it threatens other Americans’ rights to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. What makes Trump particularly dangerous on matters of race isn’t just that he harbors highly racist views, but his willingness to capitalize on the building white backlash for his own personal gain without any thought of repercussions.
Donald Trump’s impromptu press conference after Charlottesville demonstrates where his sympathies truly lie. Despite reading a prepared statement like someone in a hostage situation, he doesn’t particularly feel that white nationalists were responsible for the violence that killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens. Rather he blames both sides for it, alleging that the counter-protesters and marchers bore equal responsibility. He thinks the “alt-left” charged at marchers with clubs (despite that the marchers projected a military presence and initiated most of the confrontations). He referred to a torchlit march with people performing Nazi salutes, chanting, “Sieg heil!,” and assaulting counter-protestors as a good example of people “very quietly protesting.” He believes the violence distracted from the “Unite the Right” rally’s aim to defend a Robert E. Lee statue (despite that they really marched to protect white America from the so-called scourge of “diversity” and not at all peacefully either). In all, made explicit all the darkest undertones of his gallingly weak statement on, “many sides.” He muddied the waters by what happened in Charlottesville over that weekend as well as softened his judgement on the march itself. To Trump, what happened in Charlottesville was simply a “disruption” between two factions of equal empirical and moral culpability (even though it wasn’t).
But what really disturbs me isn’t that Donald Trump is a flagrant racist but how his remarks on Charlottesville will influence his supporters. In the past, both Democrat and Republican presidents have denounced white supremacy when it wasn’t acceptable even if it didn’t politically benefit them. Because regardless of how messy our racial politics could get, most Americans agree that white supremacists and political violence shouldn’t be legitimized. A presidential denunciation on white supremacy isn’t just an affirmation on American values and ideals of “all men are created equal,” it also keeps our nation safe by relegating white supremacists to the extremist fringe. The fact Trump failed to clearly, consistently, and unequivocally condemn the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville not only undermines American values, but puts people in serious danger. His calling it a “disruption” is very irresponsible which brings comfort to any Trump supporter convinced there wouldn’t be any problems in America if “thugs” didn’t start them. When he said that removing Lee’s statue is “changing history and culture,” he not only echoes those believing the Confederacy as part of their Southern “heritage,” but also white nationalists’ fears of “diversity” and “political correctness” erasing both America’s past and future. When he compared Robert E. Lee to George Washington, he thrills those believing the Confederacy as morally right to secede from the United States and that slavery horrors are overblown at best. When Trump insisted that the torchlit march was the quiet and peaceful protest it certainly wasn’t, he’s not just wrong. But he in every way legitimized the ideologies these marchers expressed as good and orderly. As we can see, white supremacists have given him plenty of praise him, continue to enthusiastically support him, and commit hate crimes in his name. Research shows that even implied rhetorical support from mainstream political leaders can encourage violence from radical groups. A radical group’s elements draw major strength from any kind of mainstream legitimation. As political scientist Paul Staniland told Vox, “that kind of rhetoric can provide political cover to non-state armed groups to act in ways that are really dangerous. They can just say ‘Look, we’re just doing what the president or the leader says is acceptable.’” Had Trump credibly condemned white supremacy, white supremacists would’ve had more difficulty to sell themselves for potential followers and activists as a viable political movement. When extremist groups feel like they have mainstream support, they’re more likely to attract volunteers, organize new rallies, and stage more violent attacks.
Since Donald Trump was elected, white supremacists have started recruiting more openly and it’s possible his hardcore supporters are inclined to view them more positively than they did before. After all, Trump essentially told his supporters they should have some respect and pay attention to these tiki torch wielding white nationalists. Now that these white supremacists feel like Trump’s legitimized them, they’re planning a whole other wave of activity Hate crimes have also been on the rise since legitimizing white supremacy just makes them more likely to happen. However, the worst impact Donald Trump’s remarks on Charlottesville isn’t just emboldening white supremacists. Despite that Republicans on Capitol Hill rushed to disagree with Trump blaming “both sides” for the violence, Republican voters don’t seem too upset. In fact, according to a recent CBS poll, two-thirds of Republicans approve of his handling of Charlottesville. Meanwhile, his approval ratings usually bounce between the high 30s and low 40s while he retains 80% of his party’s support. Now I know most Trump voters aren’t white nationalists or completely horrible people (unlike their man in the White House). But the fact that Trump’s explicit racism and pandering to white supremacists weren’t dealbreakers for them illustrates that they’re at least racist enough to vote for him. And the violence that might result from Trump’s decision to give white supremacists a voice was a risk they were willing to take. It’s clear many of them agreed with at least some of what Trump had to say about Hispanics, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, etc. White resentment and cultural anxiety won Trump the White House while the Republican establishment has embraced him as their leader. But what’s especially worrisome is how his presidency made explicit racism more socially acceptable. Trump constantly dog whistles, uses dehumanizing language against, and stokes fears of minorities and outsiders. To say disparaging things and be rewarded for them sends a powerful sign that gives license to others to forgo norms of interpersonal civility and kindness. Since Trump’s election, school bullying against marginalized students has been on the rise with incidents including verbal harassment, use of derogatory and racial slurs, graffiti, assault on teachers and students, property damage, fights, violent threats, and displays involving swastikas, Nazi salutes, groping, and Confederate flags. Workplace bullying has also been on the rise. Aside from the breakdowns in civility, Trump’s influence might lead Republicans to tolerate more racist rhetoric or become more racist. It doesn’t help that the media does a phenomenally shitty job covering right-wing terrorism that many conservative Republicans don’t believe it’s even a problem. And as polls shows, many white Americans have become more racist in recent years. And to make matters worse, Trump won the white millennial vote, a key membership demographic for white supremacist radicalization.
At the same time, Donald Trump has never offered any form of reassurance to the millions of Americans living in fear of a resurgent white supremacism since before he was sworn in. At best, he’s told them their fear is their problem like it’s an obstacle to overcome. At worst, he’s told them that they provoked lethal violence against themselves. And that there wasn’t anything wrong going on at the Charlottesville rally until some people came “charging with clubs.” Trump may have briefly offered a gesture of protection to Americans worrying he’s encouraging hate and violence. But he’s rendered that gesture as nothing but a “fuck you” to those who now feel abandoned while offering all but ease to the marchers. White supremacists are a national security threat responsible for more attacks on US soil than ISIS which have increased within the last several years. In June the Anti-Defamation League reported that more than half of active Klu Klux Klan chapters formed within the last 3 years, and instability within the groups meant most were short-lived. The Southern Poverty Law Center showed there are 917 active hate groups in the US. Trump has decided to cut funding to curb white supremacist terror, appointed alt-righters to the White House, and basically pandered to white nationalists. So he’s made it perfectly clear that his administration will not do anything to protect vulnerable Americans from white supremacist terror. All the while he dog whistles, dehumanizes them, and stokes fears in his base. Thus, hate crimes will continue to rise while millions of Americans have no national leader who’ll protect them.
It’s very likely there will be further clashes like Charlottesville in the near future. But what form it takes greatly depends on police and politicians’ reactions. If authorities try to crack down on this and prevent these kinds of clashes, the likelihood of violence will be reduced. Research suggests that when mainstream elites are willing to at least not explicitly condemn violent fringe actors, they’re more capable of effectively mobilizing within the police system. As a result, they’re less likely to expect the cops to crack down as hard on them as they attempt to establish links within the ruling establishment to encourage a greater levels of mobilization. A study from the early 20th century showed how sanction and support from US officials influenced lynching. Lynch mobs were more likely to kill if they had support from political leaders and less likely if mainstream leaders spoke out against them. Judging by how the police handled Charlottesville and reports of law enforcement being affiliated with white supremacist groups, it doesn’t look encouraging across the country. Republicans on Capitol Hill haven’t done anything to crack down on white supremacist terror. Until our politicians, law enforcement, and the media start taking white supremacy as a serious threat and, we should expect another terror attack like Charlottesville. And that time could be sooner than we think.