Racial violence that gripped Charlottesville, Va., causing the governor to declare a state of emergency represents a case of what Malcolm X famously characterized as “chickens coming home to roost.” President Donald Trump’s bluntly facile appeal to deep-seated racial divisions would be comical if it weren’t so dangerously effective.
Over the past 18 months, Trump’s naked appeals to a constellation of racial grievances against blacks, immigrants, and Muslims helped to fuel his rise to the nation’s highest office in the most improbable election victory in American history. Trump’s appeal, as both candidate and president, rests on his ability to empathize with the roiling pain and grief felt by tens of millions of white Americans who feel abandoned by this nation’s great promise. Unwilling or unable to believe that the president represented the very group of wealthy entrepreneurs and business leaders who search for tax cuts, dividend shares, and larger profits that had endangered the remnants of America’s postwar middle class, robust numbers of white men and women, of all class and educational backgrounds, voted for Trump.
Some of his most ardent supporters included members of the so-called “alt-right,” postmodern white supremacists who dream of building a white ethno-racial state free of people of color, civil rights, feminism, and religious freedoms that, in their minds, have corrupted American democracy. Trump cannily utilized these white nationalists as shock-troops for his insurgent candidacy, going so far as officially placing alt-right guru Steve Bannon in the White House as a key presidential advisor. David Duke, the ex-Klan leader turned early and enthusiastic supporter of Trump, now insists, in the aftermath of Virginia’s carnage, that white voters want to see the promise of Donald Trump “fulfilled.”
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Saturday took place against a national backdrop that has emboldened the confidence, organizing, and ambition of a diverse numbers of racial hate groups. Hundreds of these, alongside right-wing militia groups, descended on Charlottesville to demonstrate against the removal of a Confederate statue in a city park. They were met by counter-protesters, anti-racism activists, some of whom carried Black Lives Matter signs in a demonstration that quickly devolved into rolling, at times violent, clashes. At least three people have been killed, two Virginia State police officers felled in a helicopter crash and one demonstrator who died after an unidentified car intentionally rammed into protesters.
President Trump’s immediate response proved morally and politically bankrupt, criticizing violence in one breath, before adding that it was “many-sided.” Trump stopped far short of Virginia Govrnor Terry McCauliffe’s unequivocal condemnation of white supremacists, offering another reminder to the American public and a larger global audience, of this president’s unwillingness to abandon members of his core political base.
Virginia’s physical violence should not obscure the racially motivated political violence that Trump’s presidency feeds on. From executive orders promoting Muslim travel bans to a Justice Department tasked with pursuing allegations of reverse racism against white college students, the president has signaled, loudly and boldly, where his priorities lie in the pursuit of racial justice.
The GOP’s elected leadership has largely followed Trump’s lead, having played similar roles during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, two forerunners in utilizing racially coded words — “law and order” and “welfare queens” — that signaled to white voters their views on race matters without resorting to the coarser language of old-school segregationists.
Trump’s alliances with groups advocating racial intolerance range from the formal bond with Bannon to a wink and nod relationship with Duke to the feeling of millions of racists that they have an ally in the White House.
Violence contours appeals to racial division, which at their heart remain contestations over jobs, schools, resources, and power. The president’s “Make American Great” slogan represented an ingenious play on race, citizenship, and patriotism that offered white voters clarifying reassurance of a political restoration. In many ways, both substantive and symbolically, we are living in a time that echoes the racial backlash experienced in the aftermath of Reconstruction, where aggrieved whites founded hate groups, criminalized black men and women, and erected Jim Crow laws in an effort to “redeem” the South from the scandal of black citizenship. Racial violence punctuated this restoration, culminating in an 1896 Supreme Court decision upholding racial segregation and giving rise to the myth of white supremacy as a normative part of American culture.
The Civil Rights movement’s heroic period upended white supremacy legally and politically, but perhaps most important, argued that racial justice represented the beating heart of American democracy, a cause symbolized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and recognized, over time, by presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and, in their own manner, subsequent presidents, including Reagan, who signed the MLK holiday into law.
As the first modern president to consider racial segregationists a part of his base, Trump remains reluctant to forcefully speak out against racial hatred, thereby sending another signal that ensures that this latest explosion of racial violence will get much worse, before it gets better.
Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “Stokely: A Life.”