On August 12, 2017, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and other groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a Unite the Right weekend of rallies, protests and mayhem. Ostensibly organized to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a city park,* it served as a rallying point – a coming out party if you will -- for hundreds of mostly young white men to march with tiki torches, repeatedly chant such slogans as “Jews will not replace us,” and boldly initiate violence against counter-protesters.
The next day, James Alex Fields drove his grey Dodge charger through a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, and injuring dozens more. Fields Jr. is currently serving multiple life sentences.
White nationalism was thrust into the national spotlight, magnified when then-President Donald Trump was asked to comment on the white supremacist-initiated violence, and he infamously stated that there were "very fine people on both sides," referring to both the anti-racists and the White nationalists.
“That they existed was itself nothing new. What was new, however, was the GOP’s recognition of the nascent era of Trumpian conservatism as an opportunity to both cement and capitalize on those shared interests more concretely than anytime since the 1960s,” Rafi Schwartz recently wrote (https://www.mic.com/impact/how-charlottesville-transformed-the-republican-party).
For many Americans, Charlottesville was the first encounter with the boldness and reality of white supremacists taking to the streets. And while Unite the Right didn’t actually unite the right it, coupled with the election of Donald Trump, accelerated the rise of right-wing terrorism as a major threat.
“Some of the very same groups that were involved in Charlottesville stormed the United States Capitol,” on Jan. 6, 2001, said Brian Moran, who was Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, under Gov. Ralph Northam, in a WTOP interview. “In 2017, they unmasked themselves.”
In November of last year, The Forward reported that jurors found that the organizers of the Unite the Right rally were found guilty of conspiracy to commit violence and awarded the plaintiffs over $25 million in damages. The jury deadlocked on whether the defendants had committed “racially motivated violence.”
So what have we learned? We have learned a great deal about the intersection of white nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism.
We have learned – as if we didn’t know this already – that white nationalism is not an aberration in this country, and that it doesn’t take much to unleash the forces of bigotry and hate. The Unite the Right rally helped set off another period of white nationalism in the country, which has not slowed during the past five years. While the Unite the Rally may not have united disparate groups on the far right fringe, it thoroughly congealed within the Republican Party.
Unite the Right also solidified the important role right-wing media plays in drumming up bigotry and conspiracy mongering, which has become the coin of the GOP realm.
According to Schwartz:
That normalization has been sped by another symbiotic relationship: that between the GOP and the far-right media. The biggest player in the ecosystem is Fox News, whose various hosts’ screeds frequently rose to de facto policy slates within the Trump administration. Anti-immigrant rants by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham helped mainstream the white nationalist “great replacement” theory. What’s more, the pair’s invectives against removing Confederate iconography were aligned with the purported animating impetus behind the march itself — the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. While both Ingraham and Carlson had fanned the flames of bigotry in the past, that their post-Charlottesville broadcasts so overtly embraced the same rhetoric as the marchers show just how much Unite the Right was an ossifying moment for conservatives in general. Sure, the Nazi violence in the streets wasn’t ideal, but by massaging the marchers’ rallying cry just enough, Fox News and other right-wing outlets like Newsmax and OAN helped push the GOP more toward the far-right goal of a white Christian ethnostate than ever before.
“After Aug. 12, 2017, the party became a vehicle for enterprising politicians who tacitly condoned the vitriol to advance their own political careers, actively casting its net into the murky waters that they’d once kept at arms distance,” Rafi Schwartz noted. The events at the capitol on January 6, and the subsequent investigation, has revealed how complicit many GOP officials may have been in that day’s violence.
The Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election continues to resonate with conservatives. Such Republican Party-encouraged groups as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers have grabbed headlines across the country. Overt calls for a civil war resound over social media.
While Charlottesville did not cause all these things to happen, it certainly helped set the ball in motion.
In Charlottesville, The No Unity Without Justice: Student and Community Organizing During the 2017 Summer of Hate at the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Library was set up by students who lived in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally. “The struggle isn’t over, and so the point of this exhibit, I think, and I don’t want to kind of speak for the curators, but the point of the exhibit is to have truth telling by having physical objects,” UVA professor and community activist Jalane Schmidt said.
* Writing for MIC, Vanessa Taylor explores the fascinating history of the bronze statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveller, which was commissioned in 1921, by a single individual: Paul Goodloe McIntire, a businessman, and one of Charlottesville’s largest benefactors, and constructed in 1924 (https://www.mic.com/impact/what-happened-to-charlottesville-robert-e-lee-statue).