A riot broke out Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, between neo-Nazis with alt-right supporters and counterdemonstrators. The ostensible issue was the removal from the town of a statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. One person was killed when a car driven by a white nationalist rammed into a crowd of counter protestors
Adding to the horror of the violence was the comment by President Trump; "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," he said in an aside to reporters at a press conference.
The fact that he did not call out the specific violence, oral and physical, of the neo-Nazis and white nationalists and that he equated the violence by the white extremists with that of the counterdemonstrators later obliged the White House communication staff to be more specific about who was to blame. Trump had made no such distinction, especially since the violence clearly started with the pro-Confederacy supporters.
The commentaries the White House sent out after Trump’s statement were careful not to offend his core base of political supporters even if three days later he read a statement condemning the right wing groups after enormous pressure to specify those responsible.
The entire incident not only raises issues about Trump’s moral compass and ability to be an inclusive president, it again raises the issue of race and violence in the United States. As if that issue had to be raised again. Moreover, it raised the issue of Trump’s role in exacerbating divisions within the country.
The University of Virginia is the campus of Thomas Jefferson, the iconic Founding Father and the country’s third president. He instructed that on his tombstone it was to be written: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia. He explained these words; "because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."
The campus is a genteel enclave known for its colonial architecture, via Jefferson’s design. It is far from inner cities such as Watts and Newark, but issues of race and cultural clashes are never far below the surface anywhere in the United States.
Jason Kessler, the main organizer of Saturday’s rally and a graduate of the University, called Charlottesville a “very far left community that has absorbed these cultural Marxist principles advocated in college towns across the country, about blaming white people for everything.”
Charlottesville far left? It is indeed if the moral geography represented by Trump has moved so far to the right. The horse country of central Virginia is a far cry from the campuses of the University of California at Berkeley or Columbia University in the 1960s. The recent clashes in Virginia are merely the latest manifestation of the current polarization of American society. In May, Richard Spencer, a white supremacist, led a march of the alt-right on the city. In July, unhooded members of the racist Ku Klux Klan had a march in the city of Jefferson, near his historic 5,000 acres plantation.
Charlottesville far left? Memories of the Civil War, even over 150 years after it has ended remain just below the surface. Already in South Carolina in 2015 there were incidents surrounding the lowering of the Confederate flag in Columbia, the state capital. And that was only precipitated by the massacre of nine churchgoers in Charleston one month before.
Histories of antagonisms - be they black vs. white, North vs. South, Nazi vs. Allies, Christians vs. Jews, Christians/Jews vs. Muslims - do not go away easily. It is the evil “genius” of Trump to bring these antagonisms to the fore, just as Slobodan Milosevic was able to rally Serbian nationalists in Yugoslavia following the death of President Tito.
Trump has managed to unite neo-Nazis, alt-right followers and racists. No matter how much his communication people try to present another facet of his personality and his belated statement, his followers know full well what he stands for, or what he wants them to believe he stands for. He panders to their worse instincts; he further polarizes American politics and culture.
Trump can blame Barack Obama for this and that. He can blame Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions, for what goes wrong. He is always the victim. But, he can blame only himself for further polarizing a polarized country. Kessler was right about not blaming all whites, but a good place to start the blame game for the current tensions within the United States would be with President Trump.