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The Lessons Unlearned From Charlottesville

White nationalism didn't go underground after Charlottesville: It went mainstream.
Jason Kessler (center), who organized the Unite the Right rally, speaks on August 12th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Jason Kessler (center), who organized the Unite the Right rally, speaks on August 12th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

The violent clashes that emerged from the brazen march of white nationalists and neo-Nazis through the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, last August were supposed to be a wake-up call to the state of bigotry in America.

A Quinnipiac survey released in the aftermath of the riots found that 60 percent of the people surveyed disapproved of President Donald Trump's handling of the incident, while 59 percent said the president's "decisions and behavior have encouraged white supremacist groups." A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted during the week after the riots confirmed that a majority of Americans opposed neo-Nazi movements (83 percent) like the so-called "alt-right" (50 percent), while an Ipsos poll found that, when asked, Americans largely opposed racism and white nationalism in favor of equal treatment for all (89 percent). Even members of the United States Armed Forces consider white nationalism to be a larger national security threat than insurgent campaigns in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

It seemed, for a time, that while Trump's election purportedly unleashed a tidal wave of white identity politics, the aftermath of Charlottesville served as a rebuke of the more extreme elements of "white anxiety."

But that's not been the reality. While attendance was low at the second Unite the Right rally in Washington, D.C., this weekend—thanks in part to infighting between various alt-right organizations—the white nationalist and neo-Nazi strains of far-right radicalism continue to plague American politics from the streets of cities like Portland to the happy hours of D.C. and the halls of the White House.

That white supremacy didn't just evaporate after Charlottesville is no surprise. The same Ipsos poll that found a vocal support for equal rights also revealed deep-seated strains of white supremacy: Thirty-one percent agreed that "America must protect and preserve its White European heritage," while 39 percent agreed that "white people are currently under attack in this country." To that latter belief, according to FiveThirtyEight, only 6 percent of both Republicans and Democrats thought white Americans experienced "a great deal" of discrimination in 2005; by 2016, the share of Republicans had increased to 18 percent—and even Democrats, basking in the afterglow of Barack Obama's presidency, rose to 9 percent.

White nationalism didn't go underground after Charlottesville: It went mainstream. Consider the Daily Stormer's leaked style guide, which advocates the embrace of modern Internet-style trolling humor to the extent that "the unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not." Or neo-Nazi organizer Andrew Anglin's call for his followers in D.C. over the weekend to "remain in the realm of the hip, cool, sexy, fun." These efforts all share the same goal: to normalize, by way of aesthetics and posturing, the white nationalist movement.

And, judging by Fox News' shift in coverage, that posturing has worked. As The Atlantic's Adam Serwer wrote, the outright and vocal embrace of white supremacist talking points on Fox News presages a coming shift in the Republican Party itself, from family values to racial values:

A year after white nationalists in Charlottesville chanted, "You will not replace us!" their message has been taken up and amplified by Fox News personalities. Tucker Carlson tells his audience that "Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country." Laura Ingraham says that "the America that we know and love doesn't exist anymore" because of "massive demographic changes" as a result of "both illegal and sometimes legal immigration that progressives love." They echo the white-nationalist claim that America is at risk because the nation is growing more diverse, an argument that treats the mere presence of nonwhite people, citizen or noncitizen, as an existential threat to the country.

White nationalists win, as Serwer wrote, "by activating white panic ... and by convincing them that American politics is a zero-sum game in which white people only win when people of color lose." One year ago, white nationalists tapped into a grim strain of racial anxiety that's been a feature of white America life for decades—and they've now interwoven it through the fabric of American political discourse.