This weekend marks one year since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, and instigated a bloody, deadly riot. Two days later, President Trump gave them a pass, arguing that there was “blame on both sides,” referring to the counter-protesters. The president wanted the American people to know that some of these white supremacists were “very fine people.” One member of this group murdered Heather Heyer — who was white, thereby demonstrating in the worst way how racism affects us all. From the jump, the white supremacists taking part in the “Unite the Right” rally made it clear that they weren’t merely protecting a Confederate statue, as advertised. They were there to terrorize in the vein of hate groups America has long known. What happened last year was an incident of domestic terror. The perpetrators didn’t even need to hide beneath conical white hoods.
It is useful to remember that Confederate statues are meant to menace. Much like the stars-and-bars flag that our country’s original secessionists flew, monuments to men such as Robert E. Lee were erected to frighten and subjugate African Americans amid the ascent of Jim Crow. Like the keloids that rose from black skin that had been broken open by a whip or a police baton, the shrines to these traitors are meant to be there forever. Confederate memorials are not worth keeping for the sake of history, as so many apologists claim. They are terrorism, cast in bronze and stone.
The two white men who beat DeAndre Harris to within inches of his life that day were convicted and await sentencing. Heyer’s killer, James Alex Fields, Jr., was indicted on first-degree murder charges late last year and will face a trial in November. Fields was also charged in June with federal hate crimes. But there were hundreds of people in the streets that day who were there to spread a message of hatred and fear, and thus far, none of the hate groups or their members have faced significant legal consequences.
Neither has the president.
Trump’s statements and behavior in the aftermath of Charlottesville remain a stain on his already abysmal presidency. The two easiest things for any president to do to score points are to condemn neo-Nazis and comfort bereaved mothers, and Trump failed at both. If he didn’t want that job, he could have continued being a racist private citizen. Trump is notorious for his intellectual laziness, but if he is an expert at anything, it is shirking responsibility.
This president, tasked with protecting America from all threats foreign and domestic, has allowed the extremism that ignited Charlottesville to continue unchecked. The Anti-Defamation League reported in January that, including Heyer’s murder, white supremacists and other conservative extremists were responsible for 59 percent of the domestic-terror killings in 2017, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. An actual president would seek to ensure that the government is doing its best to protect Americans from these kinds of threats. Instead, Trump exploits the same vitriol that fueled Charlottesville to keep his base happy, most recently in his racism against Latin American communities. It is a dereliction of duty.
The left has its bursts of outrage and anger, but we likely won’t know the true power of that indignation until the November midterms. Meanwhile, Republicans’ Strongly Worded Statements do nothing to impede the president’s agenda. Candidates welcome him at their rallies ostensibly as a surrogate, even though their campaigns will take a backseat to whatever lie-filled grievance the president has stirring around in his brain that day. And the party feels more liberated to actually run candidates such as Virginia’s Corey Stewart, someone who keeps close associations with white supremacists and even praised the South’s secessionist efforts in a campaign appearance four months before the Charlottesville violence.
Trump gets away with this, in part, because we don’t expect him to do a better job. His intolerance is taken for granted. While we are appalled, say, by his policy of ripping immigrant families apart and locking children in cages, we’re no longer shocked when his followers act out, as they did in Charlottesville last summer. The president consistently ignores the rule of law and has, to this point, faced no significant repercussions. Why would his supporters expect anything less for themselves?
The culture of low expectations is not solely to blame. Trump’s alleged conspiring with Russia is viewed by many as traitorous, but his racism has not been treated as an equivalent betrayal. We know that there are a litany of reasons why he is unfit for office, but his willingness to disregard public safety for the sake of his own political power and the cause of white supremacy sits atop that list. When you have a president who not only thirsts to indulge in his personal bigotries but uses them for political gain, you end up with a head of state who is willing to ignore — or even encourage — the most urgent terrorist threat emerging in the United States. Look no further for evidence of Trump’s treason.