In raising the alarm about the threat of Islamist terrorism, President Donald Trump had perhaps no more potent symbol of its randomness than images of vehicles plowing into unsuspecting innocent crowds in Western European cities.
But the terrorist incident that struck Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend was not the work of a Muslim extremist, it was carried out by 20-year-old Ohio man who might well have been one of his voters.
James Alex Fields, Jr., a self-styled Nazi, is also somebody who has violently threatened his mother. On numerous occasions, Samantha Bloom, described as a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair, called police out of fear of her son. Fields now faces the possibility of many years behind bars if convicted of killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than 19 others, who found themselves on the scene because of their belief that all humans are created equal.
Opposition to that fundamental principle was the unifying idea behind the Unite The Right riot in Charlottesville. Addled white people — the bulk of them appearing to be young men — turned out in the liberal college town to shout their certitude that they are superior to blacks, to Jews, to immigrants, to Muslims, to queers. In their brazen exuberance, there was little indication they understood that governments advocating their ideology had literally been crushed throughout history.
Hitler’s Germany and the South’s Confederacy, each after years of hideous violent conflict, found themselves no match for the united wrath of people fighting, no matter how imperfectly, for the cause of humanity. In accepting unconditional surrender, both the Third Reich and the Confederacy forfeited the right to govern in a civilized world.
In what was surely a stupid move, this past weekend’s racists mixed swastikas with their beloved Confederate flag and so dealt a devastating blow to their cause of preserving statues glorifying the slave owners willing to break up the Union so they might hold on to their chattel. Slavery’s use of violent terrorism to control human beings was thus underscored, and the illegitimacy of the “it’s our tradition” argument broadcast far and wide.
The weekend also exposed the mortal threat facing a Republican Party that continues to cosign its president’s divisiveness. Immediately seeing this new danger, prominent GOP leaders wasted little time slamming Trump for giving the rioters the kid glove treatment and offering only the mildest of reproof to violence “on many sides, many sides.” South Carolina was the “cradle of the Confederacy” and long embraced a white historical reading of the Civil War. But, it’s been several years since the Confederate Flag last flew over the State Capitol, and its senior senator, Lindsey Graham, up for reelection next year, pinned Trump’s ear back for “his both sides are to blame” statement.
“He missed an opportunity to be very explicit here,” said Graham said on “Fox News Sunday,” of all places. “These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House. I don’t know why they believe that, but they don’t see me as a friend in the Senate, and I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he’s their friend.”
And this is how Charlottesville has become bigger than the flagrant visibility of neo-Nazi groups or the 19 hospitalized in the auto attack or even the tragic death of Heather Heyer. Will Americans come to think of the racists as Trump’s people, as his base? And will that make them uncomfortable being at the same party? Trump, no doubt at the insistence of his staff and family, tried to right the situation on Monday, only to backslide in unhinged fashion on Tuesday. He can read the right words, but when he speaks with his own voice he seems to be saying, “Don’t do that,” while winking to the thugs that he enjoys their transgressions, their violence. His inability to make a clean break with the racists may be his undoing.
Trump is letting himself be identified with the worst elements in American society. Meanwhile, the South Carolina senator spoke with a clarity that eludes the president. “Their cause is hate, it is un-American, they are domestic terrorists, and we need more from our president,” Graham said.