There Is Only One Side to the Story of Charlottesville

Five lessons from what could prove a decisive moment.

White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the “alt-right” exchange insults with counter-protesters as they enter Lee Park during the “Unite the Right”' rally on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the “alt-right” exchange insults with counter-protesters on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Heil Trump,” the white supremacists chanted as they marched past me, turning my beloved hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, into a rallying point for fascists, white supremacists, and their preppy enablers in the so-called alt-right. One side instigated the rally, dubbed it #UniteTheRight, and spent months escalating violent rhetoric. President Donald Trump blamed “many sides.” They rallied to prevent the removal of a Confederate statue. Trump’s nationally televised response—“we must cherish our history”—was heard less as a dog whistle than as a bullhorn.

Many of the racist ralliers intentionally invoked shocking images from our past, but if leaders, particularly on the right, do not quickly acknowledge the breadth and depth of this crisis, these new images may serve more as harbingers of our future. While Charlottesville played host, most of the pro-hate participants I interviewed came from across the mid-Atlantic and even Midwest. The man suspected of being the driver that plowed through anti-racist protesters was identified as a 20-year-old from Ohio. As for scope, while their numbers were only in the hundreds, a Republican candidate for Virginia governor this year who ran on a neo-Confederate platform and embraced these groups’ calls to protect the monuments came within 1 percentage point of winning the nomination this summer.*

While much can be debated about the event, a few items were very clear.

First, this was unequivocally about race, about white tribalism. For the hundreds who rallied, many of them heavily armed, race was the defining issue. No one I talked to mentioned economic anxiety or trade policy. “You will not replace us” was the leading chant, and I was told multiple times that I was clearly a “Jew banker,” “faggot,” or “sellout to my people.” Their signs read “White Lives Matter” and said that Charlottesville’s black vice-mayor “Wes Bellamy is a Nigger.” I have met Trump voters who were not primarily motivated by race—these were not them.

Second, these guys are enabled by Donald Trump and the politics of Steve Bannon. From the “Heil Trump” chants to the MAGA hats, the participants were clear with me that Trump had made this “our time.” After Trump tweeted that “We ALL must be united,” former KKK grand wizard David Duke responded, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.” At this point, Trump appears more beholden to white supremacists than to Putin. Doubt it? Watch the sequence of events on Saturday, from Trump’s relatively presidential tweet condemning the hate, to David Duke’s overt challenge to Trump not to disown the white tribalists who elected him, to Trump’s moral disaster of a press conference in which he refused to condemn or even name white supremacy or domestic terrorism and apparently ad-libbed the most cowardly act of moral relativism of the modern era.

Third, Saturday showed us a vision of a dystopian future that is the logical extension of our current gun laws. Not just gun ownership but AR-15s. Not just concealed carry but open carry. And not just the right to open carry even long guns but to dress in full military fatigues with accessories (earpieces, vests, insignias) to blur every line between legitimate law enforcement and a fully armed white nationalist militia. I have spent time in multiple conflict zones and still would not have known at a quick glance if bullets started flying which heavily armed men in camouflage and flak jackets represented law and order and which were armed terrorists. Donald Trump, who claims to be the hero of law enforcement, has issued no criticism of those who blur the line between public and private security forces, who blur the most sacred blue line between violence and force. Is there anything more vital of a commander in chief who claims to care about those who serve in uniform than to condemn those who fake the uniform?

Fourth, it is probably easiest to just start referring to this entire coalition as the modern KKK. Yes, they are fascists and white supremacists, “alt-right” and actual KKK. Yes, they each had a distinct uniform, from the white polo–wearing preppy brigade to the cosplay crowd to the toy-soldier dress-up troops. But they are clearly working as a coordinated unit, just as the Klan did through various periods. The working class generally wore the robes and committed the ugly crimes, while the leadership wore the robes of judges and badges of sheriffs that wielded the real power of ensuring white male supremacy. This network is trying to cross-brand, and the result is an integrated network of white supremacists that collectively constitute the modern Klan.

Finally, there will be a strong desire to avoid the proximate cause of this rally: how we remember the Civil War. Many moderates on both sides find it distasteful or “agitating” to consider how we memorialize that history. As someone who has worked on transitional justice efforts in a dozen countries, I can tell you that civilized countries have always made deliberate decisions about how to tell their history, who to memorialize, and how that becomes more accurate and informed over time. Do we honor history when we freeze in time a set of memorials largely born out of mythology, largely resurrected in the midst of desegregation (not the war), and largely based on an utterly debunked revisionist history of the Civil War? These critiques of renaming buildings and “protecting” statues are not historically accurate or intellectually honest. They are lazy attempts to avoid the difficult work of correcting the lingering effects of the Dunning School and the Lost Cause myth. It is a failure to understand the new Jim Crow laws that result. It is rendering invisible even today that the majority of human beings in Charlottesville and Albemarle County at the time of the Civil War were black, and it was black Union fighters who were the first to enter Richmond. What this three-month modern Klan campaign should teach those who passively support keeping these monuments is that they serve not as innocent icons of our past but political tools of hate and fear in our present.

Saturday could be the anomaly or become the norm. This could be coming to a town near you, or our future could be defined by the many solidarity vigils being organized around the country. Our future will be determined by whether we speak honestly about the racial demagoguery of this White House, whether principled conservatives stop enabling the racist and authoritarian policies of the Trump administration, whether we restore the line between force and violence, and whether we have the moral and intellectual courage to engage honestly with our past.

Langston Hughes famously said, “America never was America to me,/ And yet I swear this oath—/ America will be.” Saturday’s clash in Charlottesville may have lacked the poetry, but it offered the same prophetic challenge of those words. Previous generations sacrificed beyond measure to get us closer to that aspiration. Let’s be perfectly clear that there is only one good way for this story to end, and it isn’t with the the side of death or fear, of hate or of a nostalgia for a cult of racial injustice. It’s the only story there is to tell: of the America that will be.

Correction, Aug. 14, 2017: This article originally stated that Corey Stewart came within 1 percent of winning the nomination. He came within 1 percentage point. (Return.)