LAST weekend white supremacists flocked to the picturesque college town of Charlottesville, Virginia to protest against the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, from a city park. They marched on the University of Virginia on Friday night, chanting “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” On Saturday morning, carrying Nazi and Confederate flags, they tussled with counter-protesters. And then, after brawls forced police to clear a city park, Heather Heyer was killed (see our Obituary) and 19 others injured when a car ploughed into a crowd of chanting counter-protesters. James Alex Fields junior, a 20-year-old from Ohio whom a former teacher recalled having “sympathy toward Nazism…idolisation of Hitler [and a] belief in white supremacy”, was arrested and charged with murder.
Politicians have few easier tasks in their careers than condemning Nazis. Sometimes talking about race in America can feel like trying to pirouette across a minefield. This is not one of those times. An overwhelming majority of Americans from across the political spectrum agree that brandishing the flag of a regime that systematically murdered millions, against whom America fought a war, is a bad thing. Not only liberals but dozens of congressional Republicans managed, in the words of Cory Gardner, a senator from Colorado, to “call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
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And yet Donald Trump seemed to find this task difficult. On Saturday night he managed a mealy-mouthed condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence—on many sides, on many sides”, even though only one side appears to have paraded with heavy weaponry and murdered one of its opponents. Not until Monday afternoon, and then only after crowing over his administration’s economic triumphs, did Mr Trump manage to admit that “racism is evil”. And, he added, “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Even then, his advisers reportedly had to cajole him into it.
His efforts at moral clarity proved fleeting. Asked about Charlottesville at a bizarre, combative press conference a day later, Mr Trump fulminated over leftist counter-protesters “charging with clubs in their hands…without a permit, and they were very, very violent.” To be sure, some left-wing protesters came to Charlottesville ready to fight—but so did the white supremacists, who were armed with swords, flagpoles, shields and guns. Mr Trump insisted that there is “blame on both sides”, and that on both sides—among those marching in support of ethnic cleansing and white supremacy and those who opposed both—there were “very fine people”.
Some of the marchers, he claimed, were just there to protest against the removal of Confederate statues, a trend opposed by some of the president’s supporters. He worried that removing more Confederate statues could lead to removing statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, seemingly indifferent to the distinction that Washington and Jefferson founded the Union, while Lee and other Confederates took up arms against it. From the sidelines his new chief of staff, John Kelly, hired to bring discipline to the White House, stared at the ground dejectedly, his arms folded in front of him.
Mr Trump defended his tepid first statement by claiming he had not then had all the facts, displaying a previously unrevealed concern for accuracy. He has never shied away from attacking his enemies quickly and viciously. When Ken Frazier, the CEO of Merck, a pharmaceutical company, resigned from Mr Trump’s manufacturing council in protest at his reaction to what happened in Charlottesville, it took the president less than an hour to start attacking him on Twitter. Several others followed Mr Frazier off the council (see article) before Mr Trump disbanded it. But to Mr Trump the violence in Charlottesville was authorless and disembodied, a sad but inherent part of life, like bad weather. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country,” he sighed. “It’s not Donald Trump, it’s not Barack Obama.”
Racist violence certainly predated Mr Trump: for most of American history, African-Americans were either enslaved or de jure second-class citizens. But Richard Cohen, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which tracks the activities of extremist groups, says that the Charlottesville rally was the largest white-supremacist gathering in more than 40 years. Mr Trump, he says, “has energised the white-supremacist movement…We’re seeing a revival of street activity.”
America has rarely undergone a period of racial retrogression as acute as that which accompanied Mr Trump’s assumption of the presidency. One year ago, America had a black president; his successor brought white nationalists into mainstream politics for the first time in living memory. One century ago Ku Klux Klan members felt obliged to hide their identities beneath white hoods; last weekend white supremacists in Charlottesville felt bold enough to march unmasked. David Duke, a former Klan leader, said he and his fellow nationalists came to Charlottesville to “fulfil the promises of Donald Trump” and to “take our country back”. Mr Trump’s equivocation on Saturday thrilled the Daily Stormer, a racist website: “No condemnation at all…Really, really good. God bless him.” His performance on Tuesday earned rave reviews from Mr Duke (“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage”) and his ilk.
Most politicians would have found it easy to condemn political violence and the alt-right without equivocation. Most presidents at least try to bring the country together at a time of national tragedy, as Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing, George W. Bush after September 11th and Mr Obama after the murder of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. Mr Trump is not most presidents: he seems driven by no principle higher than supporting those who support him and opposing anyone who fails to give him the glory he believes to be his due. The nationalist right like him, so they must be “fine people”; the left does not, so of course they are to blame.
One nationalist in Charlottesville boasted to a reporter from Vice News, “We are stepping off the internet in a big way…We greatly outnumbered the anti-white, anti-American filth. And at some point we will have enough power that we will clear them from the streets for ever.” That seems unlikely: the far right’s numbers remain mercifully small—the Charlottesville rally seems to have drawn around 500. But the far right is getting the attention it craves. There will be more rallies, and where they happen, counter-protesters will inevitably follow. The nationalist right may remain an outnumbered fringe, but it is emboldened. It has friends in high places.