If you’re surprised by what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, you shouldn’t be. On Friday neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other “alt-right” activists descended on the city and, predictably, violence erupted. As of Sunday morning, three people were dead, including one protestor mowed down in an apparent act of domestic terrorism and two police officers who died when their helicopter crashed.
All of this is horrifying, but it was entirely and utterly predictable. Since even before Donald Trump declared his candidacy over two years ago, he has ratcheted up some truly incendiary rhetoric. It all started with his racist birtherism, questioning the legitimacy of his predecessor Barack Obama by insisting he was born in Kenya.
He called Mexicans rapists, he has called for violence against protestors at his rallies, he shared anti-semitic tweets, and refused to condemn the support his campaign and presidency have garnered from white supremacists. He claimed a federal judge would be biased because of his Mexican ancestry. His “travel ban” is widely and correctly seen as a Muslim ban.
To lay what happened in Charlottesville solely at the President’s feet would be wrong, though. After all, racism and violence are as American as apple pie. This is a country born in violence and founded in white settler colonialism and chattel slavery. True, we’ve come a long way since then, but 50 years of progress and a Black president don’t erase the hatred embedded in the DNA of this nation. What Trump has done is exploit this.
He has emboldened it. He has embraced it. He has made it policy by cutting Homeland Security funding meant to combat the rise of white nationalist terror groups, despite the obvious need for it.
In 2016 alone, hate crimes increased by 20 per cent, spurred on by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric. We’ve seen this when Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi poster boy, led his supporters to the inauguration in January. In May, a white supremacist murdered two people who intervened in a hate crime in Oregon.
Earlier this month, a Minnesota mosque was bombed during morning prayers. In all these instances, the President has remained silent.
Even when Trump does address violence by his white nationalist supporters – and that’s what they are, if you ask them – it is tepid and filled with caveats.
Speaking from his golf club in New Jersey yesterday, the President condemned violence “on many sides,” even though the violence was coming from only one side – the neo-Nazis – and as if there is more than one acceptable moral side to the issue of white supremacy. He even called for people to “cherish [their] history,” a dog-whistle to the marchers and their outrage over the removal of Confederate iconography – the impetus for their invasion of Charlottesville.
His supporters heard exactly what they were meant to, with the white supremacist site Daily Stormer calling Trump’s comments “really, really good” and pointing out that “he didn’t attack us… nothing specific against us.” It’s infuriating, but true. Trump signalled to the alt-right white nationalists that he was on their side, or at least that he wouldn’t stand in their way.
Yes, it’s appalling, but it’s hardly surprising. Everything Donald Trump has ever said or done has shown exactly where his allegiance lies, and it’s not with decency or fairness. Condemning white supremacists killing a woman should be the easiest thing a President can do.
It used to be common wisdom that Nazis were bad and shouldn’t be marching through American streets, as they weren’t morally equivalent to any other group. Donald Trump doesn’t see it that way. He sees them as friends and supporters.
We cannot count on President Trump to defend us from his own racist supporters, so it’s up to us. Everyday Americans – especially white Americans – must stand up to this insurgent white nationalism.
Silence is complicity. We need to make sure our country doesn’t go backwards, but continues the march of progress we’ve made over the past half-century.