Whether it really did start with a chain email forwarded to White House staff or merely sprang from political pragmatism about the voting coalition that elected him, President Donald Trump’s embrace of neoconfederate white nationalists after violence swept through Charlottesville was a major gift to those who seek to replace equality with white supremacy.
The Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally had become a debacle for white supremacist leaders by Saturday evening, former white nationalist royalty Derek Black told the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro on Tuesday, because the violent scuffles and deadly automobile attack on peaceful countermarchers had overshadowed the organizers’ intended goals.
“He salvaged their message,” Black, the son of Stormfront founder and prominent Ku Klux Klan leader Don Black, said on Barbaro’s podcast. The younger Black was himself an influential youth leader among white supremacists for years before renouncing the family beliefs earlier in his twenties. (While Black has written that he made his own way out of the movement, Trump has defunded a grant to a nonprofit group that works to deradicalize white supremacists in a more formal and assertive way.)
Black’s familiarity with the thinking and tactics of the most aggressive elements of American hate groups lends credibility to his analysis of how Trump’s comments spun the Charlottesville violence back in favor of the white power movement.
“The message that they were trying to get out was that tearing down Robert E Lee’s statue is an assault on white culture, so if you think that tearing down REL’s statue is the wrong choice then these are your guys. But then amidst all the violence and the chaos, I think that got lost — you’re not going to follow those people even if you believe that,” Black said. “But then in [Trump’s] message, saying these are good people because they’re fighting for something that a lot of people believe in, he salvaged the message that they wanted to spread, which is that if you believe this too and maybe you’re on the edge about whether this is a fringe movement or not, Donald Trump thinks we’re fine.”
The Charlottesville rally was at heart a recruiting tool, according to Black, aimed at luring conservative Americans who feel attachment to Confederate monuments.
“It’s just impossible to say what will happen in the future. Maybe nothing. But the point of that rally was to try to recruit people, to try to grow,” he said. “And if you were on the fence about whether you should get involved in that stuff or not, the president’s OK is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.”
Trump’s team frequently points to the brief moment in last Tuesday’s press conference where the president explicitly condemned the KKK. On Fox News Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence claimed his boss had “repeatedly” condemned white nationalist groups, when in fact his record is far more wishy-washy on rejecting support from avowed hate group leaders. Trump may have explicitly called out the KKK last Tuesday, but he also criticized “other hate groups,” which many viewed as a dog-whistle blaming groups like Black Lives Matter.
But Trump’s condemnation, however clear or murky, is beside the point. White nationalists always expect public rebuke from politicians, Black said — and Trump’s decision to lend a White House stamp of legitimacy to white panic about statues to men who fought to preserve slavery “was the most important moment in the history of the modern white nationalist movement,” Black said.
A flurry of statue removals followed the violence in Charlottesville, through formal processes in Maryland and Kentucky and impromptu protester action in North Carolina. “Unite the Right” organizers hope to turn their supporters out in force again at various other race-hate rallies at confederate monument sites throughout the country this fall. The statues have long served as forums for sharp disagreement over the propriety of memorials to traitors, but those debates have historically operated in a polite, academic tone.
The white nationalist groups who are now battling in the streets to preserve the statues see an opportunity under Trump to shift those conversations into the context of manichean “racial holy war” fantasies that have animated vengeful white supremacist groups for decades.
“What they wanted to do was to blow apart that context, to say that if you think Robert E. Lee’s statue should stay up then there’s no distinction between what you believe and what a white nationalist believes,” Black said. “And it felt like [Trump] was agreeing with them.”