Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 mark the crucible of American democracy. This is not only an inflection point, but one with repercussions that will reverberate across the country. America’s history of fascist dabblings, whether it be the World War II era internment of Japanese-Americans or 1960’s police brutality against African-American civil rights defenders, will become a more potent characteristic of the Trump presidency.
Heather Heyer was an anti-fascist protester killed at the hands of a self-declared white nationalist, James Fields, when he drove his car into a congregation of activists opposing the display of racial and minority hatred by participants of Unite the Right rally. Mostly known as the ‘alt-right,’ the Unite the Right activists are a collection of adherents from various factions of extreme Right-wing ideologies, mainly consisting of neo-Nazis and white nationalist militia movements. Although there are disagreements between the alt-right factions, such as the implementation of an ethno-state for whites only, they mainly agree to work on building communities and government policies that exclude and suppress all variants of America’s minorities; be it immigrants, LGBTQ groups, African-Americans and Jews in order to preserve what they deem to be the traditional charter of American identity. It is an identity that defines America not by the primary ideals of a social contract to democratic pluralism or equality before the law, but mainly by the alt-right’s interpretation of America as a White state, defined by the decree of ethnic nationalism.
In Charlottesville, the message from a united Right was heard loud and clear.
But the most harrowing words came not from the neo-Nazis, but from the American president.
At a Tuesday press conference President Trump did not speak as a leader, a healer, or a defender of democratic ideals. He explicitly ripped open old wounds and proved that he does not speak for the vast mosaic of people living in this country. He shamed anti-fascist protesters as harboring the same philosophical disposition as neo-Nazis and masked the racism of the Unite the Right rally as a display of historical pride in the ideals of the Confederacy, symbolically displayed by the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He defended his opinion by claiming he did not have all the facts. Here again as throughout his presidential campaign, Trump is using the tactic of confusion and cognitive dissonance on the public by conflating opinion with fact, asserting that his opinion must be genuine due to the murkiness of truth in the Establishment media’s facts.
The most threatening, disheartening, and vitriolic part of Trump’s Tuesday press conference was when the president was asked if he supported white nationalists after recommitting to his original statement that there were bad people on both sides of the protests in Charlottesville. While implicitly defending the Unite the Right demonstrators, whose rallying purpose in Charlottesville was to stop the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Trump implanted a ruthless sensory image and unequivocal ultimatum to all Americans opposed to the agenda of the alt-right. He asked if the statue of George Washington, the revolutionary father of America, will be next to be defaced due to Washington’s history of owning slaves. In the span of one breath, President Trump not only classified the Charlottesville incident as purely a racial issue, but labeled all those who protest against the of subjugation of minorities as the extremists.
The violence at Charlottesville should not be looked at as solely a racial contest, but one that challenges the average American to question the political and social ramifications of the acceptance of dueling national narratives. These narratives question who we are and what kind of government (state or federal) has legitimacy over us. Although these narratives are usually seeped in racial politics, if left unmitigated the dueling narratives of America’s founding identity will start to erode the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the people. The text of the American Constitution need not change in order for the spirit of the law to break down due to societal discord and disagreements on obligations of the state toward its people.
If we are indeed heading toward more violent confrontation between opposing (Right and Left fringe) factions, important discussions regarding American history will not only be hijacked by ideological forces, but subjugated to the existential crisis of democratic norms, where the American political center is shaped by its ineptitude toward extremist forces. The symbolic nature of the Confederate statues forces us to re-examine not only our history but also our national conscience. Most of the Confederate statues that stand in American parks and courthouses today were erected between 1895-1915. They were put up in a time when there were organized campaigns and laws administered to keep blacks as secondary citizens.
The fight today may indeed be racial, but deeper in the layers is one of national resonance, one that questions the legitimacy of federal government as unable to govern over an American society that is no more a unified social engine, but broken down into geographic bubbles of distinct communal cultures of Red and Blue states. This is an important moment in American history, one where its citizens seek to define who we are to ourselves, not the world.
It is unfortunate that the president is unable or unwilling to define the contours of the disagreements between the white nationalist leaning alt-right and Left-wing opposition groups, nor the challenges of assuaging the emotional elements of what looks to be shaping into a national identity crisis.
Presidential speeches hold a lot of weight in shaping the trajectory of a nation. When the president utters words that conflate the venom of white nationalist dogma with that of the pain many Americans feel toward the history of slavery, he is purposefully descending our country deeper into political nihilism. He is helping to soften the image of white nationalists by labeling their fight as exclusively a historical issue seeped in the cultural ethos of preserving America’s traditional identity, while vilifying Black Lives Matter, Anti-Fascist, and other Left-wing groups that oppose extreme Right-wing Neo-Nazis as they are racial extremists seeking to mar the creed of America.
Let’s be clear. President Trump was not defending Republicans or any other faction of the right- wing by saying both the Neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters had good and bad people. Traditional Republicans should be very worried if their name is being used as cover for the worst characters on the extreme Right. There must be unified condemnation not only of white nationalist political agitation, but censure of President Trump’s insidious language that not only attacks his political opponents but condemns this nation to further divide not based on political ideology, but on dueling historical narratives about what it means to be American.
This is dangerous territory that we will not be able to walk back from. American identity is based on an ideal, on a shared cultural ethos that unites us based on Enlightenment ideals. If we start to pick away at these due to the loudness of Right-wing fringe characters and the ensuing abrasiveness of tactics from opposition protesters, America as a republic will become hallow, with the political dysfunction seen at the highest levels of office berating a divided citizenry as ungovernable. In America today, the dysfunction is myriad, with an Executive office that is willingly setting up battle lines that are bound to take place in the near future, and a volatile grassroots on both the Left and Right ready to remake our embattled institutions based not on ideals, but on primal nationalism seeped in the instincts of ideology and not that of principle.
We Americans do not have a vision toward how to work together. In an era of accelerating technological change and smaller blocs of economic power, it will become more difficult to build new political platforms that can represent the needs of those who are on the margins both economically and politically. If economic prosperity continues to fad away for average Americans, they will be unable to understand that America’s real power is that of its unified geographic economic apparatus, one that acts as the engine for everyday goods and services and provides for the wealth of the entire country. The geographic unity of these United States grants us the ability to be a powerful economic enterprise. If racial politics continues to deepen the wounds of the country, economic power will continue to be consolidated in the hands of a few rising oligarchs, as people will be too immersed in social division to focus on demanding a fairer share for quality of life.
Has our democracy turned to nihilism? We have a president and opposition groups who may well be there. While the grassroots flirt with implosion due to the harrowing resonance of blustering emotions, the president’s may be more tactical. By administering chaotic and ad hoc statements, he can continue to confound the typical workings of the political process, thus preventing the stability of normalcy from confronting him and his administration and forcing Trump to conform to the laws of national governments. Can a distilled anarchy become a way of life? It’s not one most Americans want but it’s the one our current state of government will give us when moderate voices are scarcely a whimper.