As the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, Virginia arrives this weekend, Adam Serwer argues that in that year the forces of racism certainly suffered setbacks, but with their greatest champion being Donald Trump himself, they're winning the war.
From the looks of it, the Nazis lost the battle of Charlottesville. After all, Donald Trump’s handling of the aftermath of the rally, in which he said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protest, drew bipartisan condemnation. The attempted rebranding of white nationalism as the genteel and technologically savvy alt-right failed, the marketing campaign faltering after the murder of the counter-protester Heather Heyer and the attempted murder of several others revealed to the nation the logical conclusion of alt-right beliefs and arguments. The bloody outcome of that day foiled the white nationalists’ attempt to garner sympathy from the mainstream right, and in doing so, make themselves respectable.
But the alt-right and its fellow travelers were never going to be able to assemble a mass movement. Despite the controversy over the rally and its bloody aftermath, the white nationalists’ ideological goals remain a core part of the Trump agenda. As long as that agenda finds a home in one of the two major American political parties, a significant portion of the country will fervently support it. And as an ideological vanguard, the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction.
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 tellshis 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 like Cantwell are cheered to hear their beliefs championed on Fox. Cantwell wrote last year that Carlson “is basically telling white America to prepare for war as directly as he can get away with while remaining on Fox News.”
American history is replete with tragedies that are epic in scale, but few are comparable to what has happened to the party of Lincoln, who struck perhaps the most decisive victory against the principle that America is a white man’s country with the proposal and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. There is no reason that this new generation of immigrants cannot become loyal Republican voters, much as a previous generation of despised foreign newcomers did. The obstacle is the conservative movement’s growing embrace of a definition of American citizenship that is inherently racial. Where prior conservative champions like George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan might have seen a new generation of Republicans, today many conservatives see only an invasion.
While few sitting Republican legislators echo these sentiments publicly, Republican audiences are now being fed white-nationalist philosophy through mainstream conservative figures with national followings. Unless something changes, conservative constituencies will eventually begin to demand that their representatives adopt those views as well.
White nationalists win by activating white panic, by frightening a sufficient number of white people into believing that their safety and livelihoods can only be protected by defining American citizenship in racial terms, and by convincing them that American politics is a zero-sum game in which white people only win when people of color lose. While this dynamic has always been present in American politics, it has been decades since the White House has been occupied by a president who so visibly delights in exploiting it, aided by a right-wing media infrastructure that has come to see it as a ratings strategy. It is not just the white nationalists who win when racialized fears surrounding crime, immigration, and terrorism shape the political behavior of white voters. Donald Trump also wins. And both the Trump White House and the men who rallied in Charlottesville for the cause of white power know it.We're at a critical juncture here. I'm convinced that findings from the Mueller probe, plus a Democratic takeover of the House will galvanize white nationalism within the Republican party and make it the primary policy of the GOP. "Getting rid of the enemies of America" will become the singular motivation, and those enemies will be the black, the brown, and the non-Christian.
Sometime in 2019 the Republicans will fully embrace white supremacy as the central tenet of the party. The rest won't matter. You'll see 2020 primary candidates openly advocate for mass deportations, detention camps for Muslims, police action to "cleanse" black and brown neighborhoods and "protecting the white way of life". And these candidates will start winning. Corey Stewart will not be the outlier that drags the party down in 2018, but the winning norm in 2020.
The pretenses will be dropped in 2019. The Republican party will fully become the party of American white supremacy. History fully informs us where the country goes after that, and things get very ugly from there.