The Battle of Charlottesville | The New Yorker ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

Fifty-one years ago this month, George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of
the American Nazi Party, addressed a crowd of three thousand
sympathizers in Marquette Park, in Chicago. The rally came in the midst
of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s fraught northern campaign, in which he
sought to point out the ways in which segregation and discrimination
were not the exclusively the habits of white Southerners. The Nazis
seized the opportunity to present themselves as defenders of white
communities, preventing the onslaught of violence against whites that
integration would surely bring. Writing about the A.N.P.’s activities
ahead of the rally, the Times observed, “What confused many who still
remember the swastika as the symbol of the concentration camp was the
reception they got.” Local whites endorsed Rockwell’s anti-black,
anti-Semitic rhetoric in striking numbers. The scene recalled a moment
nearly three decades earlier, when Fritz Kuhn, the leader of the
Nazi-sympathizing German American Bund, drew twenty thousand people to
Madison Square Garden, to hear him present his brief in defense of Adolf
Hitler. Kuhn’s 1939 rally proved to be the pinnacle of a fleeting
movement, as did Rockwell’s Marquette Park gathering. The point here is
that this weekend in Charlottesville was not the first time this country
has witnessed the mass mobilization of Nazis. But it is the first time
we’ve seen such a feeble response to those gatherings in the upper
echelons of American power.

The current occupant of the White House has never distinguished himself
for his moral instincts, but those deficits have seldom been more
apparent than in the nadir reached in Charlottesville on Saturday.
Having failed to address the terrorist attack upon a Minnesota mosque
last week, Trump offered blandishments regarding the rising tide of
racial contempt that inspired the violence in Charlottesville. When he
did speak about the crisis, he denounced bigotry and violence “on many
sides,” in a statement that was bizarrely punctuated by references to
efforts to reform trade relationships and better conditions for
veterans. We have seen a great number of false equivalencies in the past
two years, and the most recent Presidential election was defined by
them. Yet it remains striking to hear Trump imply that Nazis and the
interracial group of demonstrators who gathered to oppose them were, in
essence, equally wrong.

It would have been naïve to expect the President to unambiguously
condemn neo-Confederates (“Heritage, not hate,” etc.), but Nazis? For
reasons that are not hard to discern, the swastika, at least in the
United States, has always been more clearly legible as a symbol of
racial bigotry than the Confederate flag. This country has countenanced
more gatherings of white supremacists than it is possible to count, yet
Nazism, precisely because Americans do not feel implicated in its worst
predations, has typically been easily recognizable as intolerable. In
the wake of Rockwell’s gathering, Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley,
denounced the group as “thugs and hoodlums.” Following the Bund rally in
New York’s Madison Square Garden, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ordered an
investigation into their tax compliance—a move that uncovered
embezzlement that proved fatal to the organization. In that context,
Trump’s decision in February to remove white
from a federal program to counter violent extremists (while maintaining
focus on Muslim terrorists) is telling. This had the effect of
emboldening the reactionary legions. It was predictable that Richard
Spencer’s coalition of the contemptuous would come together. Rockwell
was never more than a fringe character, but Spencer increasingly looks
like the vector of a formidable anger—one that needs to be confronted at
direct angles, not oblique ones. When questioned about the rationale for
Trump’s evenhandedness, the White House clarified that both the
protesters and the counter-protesters had resorted to violence. This is
notable in that the United States was once a country that did not see
Nazis and those willing to fight them as morally equivalent. Aside from
that, however, there were no images of anti-fascist protesters mowing
down reactionaries with their cars.

Trump obsesses over Barack Obama; the raison d’être of his Presidency
has been the elimination of Obama’s legacy. Yet he once again provided
evidence of why comparison with his predecessor does not favor him.
Obama was serially called upon to speak to the nation in moments of
crisis: after Aurora, after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Dallas.
He conveyed genuine empathy and a willingness to grapple with the moral
implications of the flawed decisions we have made as a society. In his
latest comments, Trump spoke in platitudes; he was a man looking for
gray areas where there were none. Nuance is anathema to his thinking,
which is why he can maintain such fidelity to his ideas in
a-hundred-and-forty-character bursts. Thus, the needless nuance and
imprecision of his comments about Charlottesville smelled of avoidance.

There have been at least
thirty attacks carried out by white terrorists since 9/11; the victims of those
attacks constitute the majority of people killed on American soil in
acts of terrorism. Two years ago, when Dylann
murdered nine people, in the sanctuary of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in
Charleston, he described himself as a kind of rageful prophet, one whose
actions would awaken white people to the perils they faced from people
of color in the United States. Those forces took Trump as a like-minded
figure, and saw in his reluctance to denounce David Duke during the
campaign, and his willingness to retweet white-supremacist accounts and
parrot their mythical statistics about black crime, a sign that their
moment had arrived.

The sickening images that emerged from Charlottesville herald that
some moment has arrived. It is a moment of indeterminate morality, one
in which the centrifugal forces of contempt, resentment, and racial
superiority are pitted against the ideal of common humanity and the
possibility of a civic society. We have entered a new phase of the Trump
era. The breach that Trump has courted since he first emerged in public
life has become apparent; it is more deadly and its architects more
emboldened. What happened in Virginia was not the culminating battle of
this conflict. It’s likely a tragic preface to more of the same.

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