They came carrying swastika flags, marching with flaming torches and chanting “Heil Trump” and “the Jews will not replace us”.
They hurled antisemitic epithets at Jews who had come to protest against their presence, wore T-shirts emblazoned with quotes from Hitler and waved posters proclaiming “the Jewish media is going down” and “the Goyim know”.
Jews were not their only target: they surrounded a church filled with mainly black worshippers, mocked the deaths of young black men as they shouted “White Lives Matter” and vowed to halt the “ethnic cleansing” of white America.
There was nothing subtle, ambiguous or covert about the demonstrators — avowed neo-Nazis, white supremacist supporters of the “alt-right”, and members of the Ku Klux Klan — who descended upon Charlottesville last weekend.
Their supposed purpose — to protest against the planned removal of a statute of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee — could not hide a wider truth. Donald Trump has emboldened and empowered the far right like no other politician in modern American history. He has brought them out from the darkest recesses of the country’s politics to the home town of a leading university, where they spewed their hate and — in broad daylight — one of their number murdered a young woman protesting against them.
The president did not invent fascism in the United States, nor was antisemitism or racism unheard of on America’s shores prior to this January. Far from it. But if, over the past half century, the arc of history has bent towards the advancement of civil rights for all Americans, Trump has colluded over the past two years with those who would twist it savagely in an altogether new direction.
David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who last year claimed “Jewish supremacists” were attempting to stymie Trump’s election, has been right about very little in his life. But there was no doubting his sincerity when he proclaimed that the movement that pitched up in Charlottesville aims to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”.
It was no idle boast: the president has engaged in a game of footsie with the far right both before and after he entered the Oval Office. Duke knows this better than anyone. In February last year, Trump only tepidly and begrudgingly disavowed his endorsement and repeatedly refused to condemn Duke. “I don’t know anything about him,” he offered weakly.
Three months later, and now the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump steadfastly refused to condemn supporters who had taken to social media to fire antisemitic abuse at the Jewish journalist Julia Ioffe for a GQ profile she had written of Melania Trump. Once again, apparent ignorance of the subject under discussion — not normally a barrier to Trump proffering an opinion — was his get-out. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said before turning down the offer of addressing those among his followers issuing antisemitic death threats: “I don’t have a message for the fans.” Nor did the candidate have anything to say when other Jewish journalists, such as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank or the conservative pundit Bethany Mandel, similarly came under attack for criticising Trump.
But Trump’s sins are not just of omission. Shortly before last year’s Republican convention, he tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton alongside a pile of cash and a six-pointed star, believed to have emerged from an alt-right website and carrying clear antisemitic undertones. He ignored requests from the Anti-Defamation League to drop his campaign slogan “America First” which, it reminded him, carried “undercurrents of antisemitism and bigotry” thanks to its use by pre-war isolationists and Nazi sympathisers. Instead, the president made the slogan the centrepiece of his inaugural address.
And, perhaps most infamously, Trump closed the campaign last year railing against “global special interests” — one speech, suggested journalist Ron Kampeas, featured “a curious replay of themes and language familiar to those of us who are steeped in monitoring antisemitism” — and running an ad attacking three prominent Jews: the chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein.
Both on the campaign trail and in the White House, the president has displayed no compunction about appointing individuals with deeply troubling associations. Steve Bannon, his campaign chair and now chief strategist, once proclaimed his Breitbart News website as a “platform for the alt-right” and is a self-professed admirer of the inter-war French fascist and antisemite Charles Maurras. Sebastian Gorka, the deputy assistant to the president, wore the medal of an antisemitic group to Trump’s inauguration.
Trump’s White House has also displayed a pattern of behaviour that appears to go beyond mere insensitivity. It issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that omitted to mention Jews; its press secretary denied that Hitler used chemical weapons against his own people; and it has left the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism unstaffed. When questioned this spring about rising antisemitism at home, the president appeared more upset about the question than the phenomenon. “He’s like the Breitbart-types who think whites suffer more from being accused of racism than African-Americans do from actually experiencing it,” suggested The Atlantic’s columnist Peter Beinart.
Given this history, Trump’s silence for hours last weekend as the far right marched into Charlottesville, his initial refusal to call out the antisemites and white supremacists, and repeated insistence on drawing an equivalence between Nazis and those demonstrating against them — shown in his sly reference to the violence on “many sides”; and insistence that among the hard-right protestors there were “fine people” who had been treated “absolutely unfairly” by — may be shocking but it is utterly unsurprising. Jewish groups rightly called, in the words of the American Jewish Committee, for greater “moral clarity” from the president.
But, surely, we now have all the clarity we need about the nature of Donald Trump. So quick to tweet over the most minor matters but so consumed with preserving his far-right base that he first delays and then backtracks on his condemnation of those who subscribe to an ideology that would see his daughter, son-in-law and three of his grandchildren dead.