James Alex Fields Jr. was driving the car that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, but the GPS in his head was the voice of Donald Trump.
As I noted in an article in last December's Washington Socialist, Trump's election last November led to a spike in hate crimes that was almost unprecedented in recent history. The reason: hate groups -- various racists, nativists, religious bigots and neo-Nazis -- interpreted Trump's expressed hostility to immigrants and Muslims as support and encouragement. Those groups were emboldened by Trump's example to march on Charlottesville on August 12, with the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee the proximate object of their rage. Thousands, including dozens of members of Democratic Socialists of America, marched in a counter-demonstration to show with their presence that such hatred and intolerance cannot go unanswered.
Even after the carnage in Charlottesville â€“ in which two DSA comrades were among the 19 injured by Fields' act of vehicular terrorism -- Trump could not bring himself, on the day of the violence, to condemn the perpetrators of the terror. Violence, he asserted, had been committed "on many sides" -- when the killer was clearly a neo-Nazi and the victims were anti-Nazi demonstrators. Trump's non-condemnation drew a pleased response from the white-supremacist website The Daily Stormer, who saw it as support for the hate groups' violent actions.
Two days after the attack, Trump -- after his initial statement had been widely condemned, and no doubt after one of the few saner heads in his administration (perhaps new Chief of Staff John Kelly) got his ear -- finally identified the perpetrators of the violence as "criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups." But only one day after that he went off-script again and back to blaming "both sides" for the violence.
Make no mistake: The Trump era is not business as usual. The radical Right has been emboldened as never before. In recent decades, Ku Kux Klan and neo-Nazi rallies tended to be tiny, sad affairs, their members usually outnumbered by counter-protestors and sometimes even reporters. Presidents, including Republicans, were quick to publicly condemn racist violence and intolerance, notwithstanding what they might have said in private (i.e., the Nixon tapes) or the subtly racist "dog-whistle" campaigns, such as George H.W. Bush's with its "Willie Horton" ad. Presidents took great rhetorical pains to cast themselves as the representatives of all Americans, even if their policies suggested otherwise.
Trump is something brand-new -- a president who governs only for his base and openly scorns millions of Americans: immigrants (and not only the undocumented ones), ethnic minorities, Muslims and other religious minorities, the LGBT community (with his efforts to purge transgender persons from the military), persons with disabilities and most women. Were it not for voters who could not bear to check a box for Hillary Clinton, his base of working-class whites and hard-core fascists would have left him far short of victory. He is the president of a minority of the minority.
Even many Republicans have by now jumped off the Trump train. Three GOP senators provided the margin of defeat for his initiative to strip 23 million Americans of health care. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a legislator with sterling conservative credentials, has become something of the Republican anti-Trump with a new book that denounces the president as a threat to democracy itself.
Trump has transcended the usual left-right divisions by openly embracing racism, nativism and religious bigotry that used to be hidden in coded messages or behind closed doors. Is it any wonder that the "alt-right" feels its day has arrived?
What is the left and the broader opposition to do? For one, what it did in Charlottesville: stand up and announce that hate is not acceptable, that it must be challenged. Now that the fascist right has embraced deadly violence, however, the stakes have been raised. If it took courage to join a counter-demonstration up until August 12, that goes double now. And it might have been worse, and could become worse: Among the right-wing protestors in Charlottesville were armed "militia." How long will it be before bullets fly?
Another urgent task is to continue to de-legitimize Trump. His conduct both during the campaign and while in office are beyond the pale for any occupant of the White House. His failure to quickly identify the far right as the perpetrator of the violence and to condemn it disqualifies him from the traditional presidential role of leader of all Americans. Trump opponents must, for a starter, urge their House members to sign on to the resolution for impeachment introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman of California that has thus far attracted few co-sponsors.
Charlottesville has raised the stakes in the battle against the fascist Right. Confronting hate and intolerance has never been more difficult and dangerous, and never more necessary.