In a quick-reaction mini-op-ed on The Washington Post’s website, conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt opined about the Charlottesville killing, “Anyone who incited the driver, indeed anyone whose actions obliged the state troopers to be airborne in defense of the public’s safety, should lawyer up.”
Well, President Trump is already lawyered up, but by Hewitt’s standard, there’s now one more reason why the president needs legal help. The very essence of Trump’s political strategy and his administration’s policy has been and remains white nationalism, which has intentionally both fed on and fostered the virulent and violent racism we saw in Charlottesville on Saturday.
Not since George Wallace’s presidential runs had there been a campaign so premised on the hates and fears of white racism as Trump’s. Though he began his bid with birtherism, and made an attack on “Mexicans” the inflammatory highpoint of his declaration of candidacy, it took many in the media some time to realize that his appeal to racism was the sine qua non of Trumpism.
Just as Wallace had deep ties to the Klan and the White Citizens Councils, as Dan Carter documented in The Politics of Rage, his seminal account of Wallace’s political career, so Trump has placed the white nationalist Steve Bannon, marketer of the virulent racist fantasies of Breitbart New Network, at the center of his political operation. In Trump’s failure to condemn white nationalist violence in the aftermath of the Charlottesville massacre, we see the hesitation of a pol who fears estranging his base, as well as of a racial fabulist who has spun too many racist myths not to believe at least some of them.
Nor is there any clear line that differentiates Trump’s failure to respond to Saturday’s killing from his other recent effusions—or his administration’s policies. This is a president who earlier this month told cops it was okay to injure arrestees, and whose attorney general wants to resurrect the mass incarceration of minorities and keep them from voting.
The broader culpability of which Hewitt wrote isn’t Trump’s alone, of course. Over the past half-century, the entire Republican Party has been moving toward a neo-Confederate politics, with each passing year seeing a growing opposition to worker rights and minority voting, the likes of which used to be confined to the Dixiecrat South. Similarly, the mission of right-wing media, from Fox News on down, has been to appeal to white viewers by telling them they’re the victims of nefarious racial minorities, surging Islamists, and anti-American liberals. Through the repetition of such Goebbels-esque fabrications, they’ve convinced a clear majority of the Republican base, as polling makes clear, that they must enroll in the fight to preserve and defend American whiteness, which they see as the essence of American identity.
For most, of course, that fight takes the form of simply supporting such Republican policies as restricting the franchise. For some, it takes the form of neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi yahooism, which can culminate—which has culminated, which invariably culminates—in murder.
Racism (or more broadly, hatred of the “other”) is an ever-present factor in human relations, but it grows deeper and wider in times of demographic and economic upheaval. Hitler came to power at the bottom of the Depression; the Klan first emerged during Reconstruction, when Southern blacks were (all too briefly) enfranchised, and came back in the 1910s and 1920s, after a huge surge of Catholic immigrants put the nation’s Protestant status in some jeopardy. It has now re-emerged in a time when America has become more multiracial than ever before, in response to the presidency of Barack Obama, and in an economic epoch when workers’ living standards have stagnated or declined. If we’re serious about deterring future Charlottesvilles, we need not only better police work but an end to the grotesque economic inequities that leave Americans at multiple points on the political spectrum feeling overwhelmed and embattled, and a renewed commitment to helping workers gain or regain a sense of agency and power over their lives.
Over time, that might well diminish the appeal that racism like Trump’s has had to millions of Americans. As for Trump himself, his failure to condemn white nationalism makes clear his belief that he undercuts the very raison d’être of his presidency if he goes after white supremacists, that his coalition is no greater than the scum of its parts.