In the year since Charlottesville, white supremacists and other extremists have only been emboldened by Trump's message.
When a white supremacist rally erupted into fatal violence one year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, it wasn’t too hard to figure out which people were on the wrong side of history.
But Trump could never quite bring himself to say it, and a year later that still hasn’t changed.
Trump delayed and dragged his feet in responding to the tragic incident in 2017, then said “both sides” of the protest were to blame for the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Trump also described some of the violent white supremacists rioting over the removal of a Confederate statue as “very fine people.”
Congress actually had to pass a resolution calling on Trump “to speak out against hate groups that espouse racism, extremism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and White supremacy,” and asking him to use “all resources” available to the White House to address “the growing prevalence” of hate groups in America.
By assigning moral equivalency to those fighting for racial equality and those championing white supremacy, Trump lit a fuse that ignited the already-energized racist segments of society who helped propel Trump to victory in the first place.
Now, a year later, the same white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville have become so emboldened that they scheduled a rally right in the center of the nation’s capital to mark the anniversary of the fatal violence they instigated. Experts who study extremism say the rally reflects the “continued embolden[ing] … of white nationalists in this country.”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson echoed these remarks, saying, “If anything, it’s gotten worse.”
“Unfortunately the tone has been set by [President Donald Trump’s] administration, and as a result, the level of racial intolerance increased,” Johnson said. He noted that “Charlottesville only exposed how the [Trump] administration would handle the issue of race,” and the result of the way they handled it is that “more people are emboldened to display their racism.”
Indeed, while the rest of the country was horrified and disgusted by Trump’s remarks last year, racists were thrilled. They saw his comments as a form of approval that gave them unprecedented legitimacy by equating their hate speech and violent actions with the non-violent, anti-racist protesters who oppose them. As the SPLC wrote in its report on hate and extremism in 2017, “Trump may have faced dreadful approval ratings among all Americans, but he did not disappoint his adoring fans within the radical right.”
This is reflected in the activity of neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and other hate groups, which have flourished under Trump’s leadership and continued to grow in the aftermath of Charlottesville. In 2017, the number of neo-Nazi groups grew from 99 to 121, and anti-Muslim organizations increased from 101 chapters to 114. According to the SPLC, the surge in extremist groups has been most intense among white supremacist groups closely aligned with Trump.
“In 2017, completely new groups sprouted up: Patriot Front, the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights, Identity Dixie and others,” SPLC reports. “Groups that latched onto Trump flourished. Identity Evropa went from one chapter in 2016 to 15 in 2017; The Right Stuff expanded from four chapters to 21 and spawned Identity Dixie; and Vanguard America grew from 12 to 25.”
Joan Donovan of Data & Society Research Institute told The Cut that although hate groups went through a period of turmoil in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, it was only temporary.
“… Six to seven months after Charlottesville, these groups started to come back together and converse more, and started to realign,” Donovan said. “Other groups that hadn’t been as prominently involved in Charlottesville, like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, began to mobilize and organize in ways that were similar to what we saw happen in Charlottesville. Now we see a new leadership, but it’s essentially the same political ideology, which is anti-immigrant, pro-white.”
In the past year, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have taken to the streets for marches and rallies, clearly not fearing any backlash or condemnation from the White House. With Trump as president, white supremacists are no longer ashamed to show their faces, nor are they shy about taking to the streets and, in many instances, engaging in public acts of violence.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacist murders doubled in 2017. They were “directly responsible” for 18 out of 34 extremist-related deaths nationwide — double the number of deaths attributed to Islamic extremists. Overall, 2017 was the fifth deadliest year on record for extremist violence in America.
In some cases, there are direct connections between Trump and the violent acts carried out by extremists.
William Edward Atcheson, a 21-year-old New Mexico resident who shot and killed two students at Aztec High School in December 2017, left behind traces of his online activity, which included extensive involvement on pro-Trump white supremacy sites and forums.
It’s not hard to figure out why these extremists are feeling so emboldened: If there were any questions about Trump’s views on race in the aftermath of Charlottesville, he has answered them with his own words and actions over the past year.
On Aug. 15, 2017, just days after the deadly rally, Trump held a press conference, during which he defended the pro-slavery Confederacy, and continued to claim white supremacists and anti-racist protesters were morally equivalent.
A few days later at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump defended his comments about Charlottesville and proceeded to launch into a racist rant in which he accused those advocating for the removal of Confederate statues of “trying to take away our history and our heritage” — a statement that skipped right past dog whistling and went straight for the bullhorn.
Then, just two weeks after Charlottesville, Trump gave a huge gift to white supremacists when he pardoned notorious racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The next month, Trump started attacking black athletes for protesting racial injustice with an unhinged racist rant during a rally in Alabama. Speaking about football players who kneel during the national anthem in a peaceful act of protest, Trump raged, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out!'”
When ESPN anchor Jemele Hill called out the racist motives of Trump’s attacks on black athletes, he responded by attacking her, too, and calling her for her to be fired — part of Trump’s pattern of attacking black women.
In October 2017, the Trump administration launched a racially charged attack on Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) after she publicly condemned the White House for hiring white supremacists amid a controversy over Trump’s treatment of Gold Star families. While Trump’s treatment of the families of fallen soldiers is notoriously bad, it’s even worse when it comes to the families of slain black soldiers, who he has often just ignored.
In December 2017, it was revealed that Trump’s “very fine people” were terrorizing Heather Heyer’s mother, which Trump ignored. However, he did make time that month to throw his weight behind the group Turning Point USA just hours after it was exposed as a hotbed of racist activity.
This pattern continued into 2018, as Trump marked the start of the new year by referring to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” and suggesting that the U.S. should limit immigration from those countries and accept more people from majority-white nations like Norway instead.
Just last month, Trump issued a blatantly racist statement ahead of his meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, warning that Europe is “losing its culture” by letting in too many immigrants from the Middle East and Africa.
And on Friday, Trump once again renewed his attacks on black athletes, accusing them of not knowing what they’re protesting against, and demanding they find another way to protest — but not mentioning white supremacists, whose form of protest resulted in murder last year.
So it’s not exactly a surprise that racists believe they have Trump’s support behind them, given that he consistently reminds them they do.
But Trump didn’t just embolden white supremacists and other racists to take to the streets — he invited them into the White House and codified their beliefs into policies and laws.
While some of the most notorious bigots hired by Trump, like Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka, are no longer (officially) working for the administration, others, like Stephen Miller, are among the most influential voices in the Trump White House.
Other members of the Trump administration — like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and chief of staff John Kelly — have helped legitimize racism and enact it through policies such as the cruel practice of separating families at the border, and minimizing or ignoring the threat of white supremacist violence while fear-mongering about the alleged threats posed by immigrants, refugees, and Muslims.
Apparently inspired by the racism emanating from the White House, a record number of white nationalists are running for national office this year, including candidates who deny the Holocaust and advocate for segregation. At least eight people associated with white nationalist groups are running for office in 2018, and even more are running at the local level.
In June, one of the white nationalists who rioted in Charlottesville was elected to public office as part of the Washington State Republican Party. His social media profile photos show him wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, reflecting how acceptable it has become for people to simultaneously advertise their support for Trump alongside their racist viewpoints — and also reflecting how the Republican party has welcomed these extremists into the fold.
In this context, it’s hardly a surprise that white supremacists feel welcome in the nation’s capital.
Through their words and actions, Trump and other members of his administration have given the signal to racists that they have an ally in the White House — and this weekend’s rally shows the message has been received loud and clear.
Published with permission of The American Independent.