Thoughts on Charlottesville

Gentle Readers, you all know the news by now. Over the past weekend, a group of Nazis (and to whatever degree it makes sense to separate them anymore, Klansmen) carrying tiki torches marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. They chanted their usual slogans, “blood and soil,” “the Jews will not replace us,”  you can get the full list from any documentary. They came armed for war. The police now believe they had weapons cached around the city; the governor of the state believes they packed more heat than the local department did. They came, as fascist groups usually do, hoping for a fight. When the counter marchers, including remarkably brave students from the University of Virginia who faced an armed mob who literally believe their lives expendable, did not offer a fight, the fascists invented one.

One of those Nazis, James Fields, drove a car into the counter protesters, injured several, and murdered Heather Heyer. You know her story. Others may yet share her fate. I’m sure the thought of it makes many of them happy indeed. They win for showing up, win for seeing each other in numbers, and win again for the murder. We must remember them. I offer also this story I saw reported less in the media over these awful days:

Deandre Harris, works at a local high school. He has the hard, draining job of an instructional assistant in a special education program. If you know nothing else about special education, understand that the people who work in those classrooms with those kids are heroes. Harris marched; the Nazis found him. He explains what happened next:

“Me and about five of my friends were out protesting. We thought [the racists] left, but at one point they came back. Everyone was exchanging words with the group, but then the KKK and white supremacists just rushed us,” Harris told The Root in an interview.

“They were beating me with poles. I have eight staples in my head, a broken wrist and a chipped tooth,” Harris said.

Harris had friends who saw him beneath their pile of limbs, poles, and hatred. They stepped in, so he lived to tell his story. This all took place in a building adjacent to the Charlottesville police department. Harris’ case might not fit technical definitions built on nineteenth and early twentieth century crimes, but white supremacists tried to murder him for political activism. Deandre Harris was lynched last weekend. This happened in the United States of America in 2017, decades after the civil rights movement and not one year after our first black president left office.

The horrors continued. Nazis marching openly in numbers should chill us all to the bone and conjure memories of absent grandparents and great-grandparents who fought what we have long called the Good War. We decided as a nation that we would have Nazis as our ultimate villain. The ultimate in American virtue these past eight years fit into a red glove colliding with Hitler’s face. Everything the Nazis were, we were not. The United States existed to destroy Nazism. We kill Nazis in video games. We watch them die in movies. We cheer their failures in comic books. We have no more efficient shorthand for evil.

That was then. The choice to focus on someone else’s sins relieves us of our own burdens. Doing that doesn’t make Americans uniquely evil; everyone would rather talk about the faults of others than their own. But we do have a unique and horrifying history that doesn’t go away for our ignoring it. Rather, by ignoring it we continue that history. According to fascism scholar Robert Paxton, the first Ku Klux Klan might count as the first proto-fascist movement in world history. As in developing proslavery theory to its fullest flower, Americans got ahead of the curve. A nation built on genocide and slavery had advantages in these things. A nation that pretends to a different founding has still more.

The potential for authoritarianism of every stripe exists in every culture. In the United States, it has found its fullest flower through white supremacy. That has been with us from the seventeenth century onward. We have declared victory over it many times and always it has returned. Here we go again.

You have doubtless heard the many denunciations. Politicians must say that this is not us and we have no room in America for it. We all know otherwise, but to we say these things in aspiration; the America we want does not permit such horrors. We are not, we know, better than this. We want to be. When our leaders give the ritual condemnations they remind us of our aspirations and, at least rhetorically, declare that they will not have the American state endorse such actions on their watch. The actual follow-through on such things rarely, with the notable exception of a brief period in the 1960s, inspires confidence but the statements have meaning all the same. They articulate a national creed which disassociates us from the perpetrators and does not work to encourage further acts of white supremacist terror.

If speaking the ritual phrases asks almost nothing of politicians, it at least does that. The occasion warrants at least a briefly lifted finger, sincere or otherwise. The perpetrators know that as well as anyone and watch these responses with care. They also note when attention dies down and the more sophisticated tools of white supremacy march on. That sends a message: We disagree with your methods but share your goals. I wish it said more, but neither the nation’s history nor its current events admit any other conclusion that I can see.

Then the loser of the 2016 election got to become president. Said white supremacist opted to fill our White House and head our Justice Department with more of his kind. They know Donald Trump as one of their own, more so than the usually extensive cast of friends that the white power movement has in Washington. Unlike the polished hands at double talk and dog whistles, the strategy the Republican party embarked upon in earnest in 1968 and hasn’t wavered from since, he says the quiet parts out loud. The immediate response of a man with no filter and a remarkable ability to remember the names of people who displease him for Twitter rants, involved blaming both sides. The Nazis and the Klan knew they had a big green light from Trump and a wave of violence spread immediately after his election. Via Twitter, he gave them a much bigger and more explicit one. The president, at least of the Electoral College, essentially told people he knew capable of murder that they should get right to it.

In the months since November, this has become a cliche. It remains true all the same: If you ever wondered what you would do during slavery or the rise of the Nazi party, you are doing it right now. I don’t know where this is going any more than you do; historians have no particular gift for seeing the future. But I do not believe and we cannot believe that this will all just work out. More likely that not, we will see more assaults and more victims, faster and faster. Maybe we can stop it, maybe not. I can’t tell you what will or will not work. I don’t expect the tactics of the past to necessarily work again. The Civil Rights Movement required a degree of acceptance and support from the federal government that anti-Trump and anti-racist groups obviously now lack. It also cut across partisan lines by undermining white Democratic hegemony in the South in a way that made it appealing to some members of both parties rather than a strictly partisan issue. That is likewise no longer true. If you don’t believe me, consider that states controlled by the Republican party have introduced bills to essentially legalize running over protesters in the street. Consider also this photograph of the majority leader of the United States Senate:

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

This is the nation Americans live in, more than we have in a long time. It has taken decades of work to bring us to this point. The movement did not need a Trump to get this far, though he may have accelerated their timeline. It will survive him. It stands poised to radically transform the country. We may not survive it. Or it may not survive us.

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