On Saturday, the white-supremacist rally “Unite the Right,” which brought hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis to Charlottesville, Virginia, garnered a sizable counter-protest. In the afternoon, after the rally was dispersed, a car came barreling down the street, ramming into a group of counter-demonstrators. “It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Robert Armengol, a University of Virginia podcaster, told The New York Times. “After that it was pandemonium. The car hit reverse and sped and everybody who was up the street in my direction started running.” Heather D. Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who worked at a local law firm and had joined the counter-protesters, died. “It was important for her to speak up for people who were not being heard, to speak up when injustices were happening,” her mother said on Sunday night in a televised interview.
Later on Saturday President Trump tweeted his condolences to Heyer’s family and, in the same tweet, sent his regards to those who were injured, calling the situation “sad!” At a press conference earlier in the day, where he took no questions, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” This remark has been widely derided, by both Democrats and Republicans, for failing to explicitly condemn white supremacists. A White House spokesperson later issued a statement reiterating the president’s message and naming the racist groups explicitly—“The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups”—but the president himself didn’t do so until today.
In his comments on Saturday, Trump said something else that hasn’t received nearly as much attention as his equivocating about hate groups. But it’s important to take note. Trump said, “We must love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history.” Some outlets have pointed it out, identifying the call to “cherish our history” as a dog whistle. But calling it a tacit hat tip to his white-supremacist supporters doesn’t fully explain the import of this phrase. It’s something much more significant.
The justification of white supremacy has often rested on a veneer of civility. Blatant and unabashed white supremacist language has rarely been used to uphold slavery. Instead, America’s putrid racism has often been cloaked by depictions intended to make it seem respectable. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Southern slaveholders said the Bible compelled them to hold slaves—that, in fact, civilizing black people was a good Christian way of “liberating” them from savagery. “Christians across the Confederacy were convinced that they were called not only to perpetuate slavery but also to ‘perfect’ it. And they understood the Bible to provide clear moral guidelines on how to properly practice it,” wrote Thom Bassett in The New York Times.
During the civil-rights movement, segregationists used the country’s history as a reason for preserving racism. “This nation was never meant to be a unit of one…but a united of the many,” aid George Wallace in his famous 1963 “Segregation Forever” speech. “That is the exact reason our freedom loving forefathers established the states, so as to divide the rights and powers among the states, insuring that no central power could gain master government control.”
Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, spoke Saturday and directly addressed white supremacists, saying, “There is no place for you in America.” He expounded on America as a country of immigrants, saying, “Unless you’re Native American, the first ships that came to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and since that time, many people have come to our great country to unite us,” the governor said. “Our diversity, that mosaic tile of immigrants, is what makes us so special, and we will not let anybody come here and destroy it.” McAuliffe misses that slaves came to America in very different conditions than those evoked by the “nation of immigrants” phrase. And that is because America was founded on the idea that the white race is superior to all others. This is white supremacy’s home. There is nowhere for those white nationalists to go. White supremacists are of this country as much as the black people are who were brought here on slave ships. Instead, McAuliffe and all those who condemn white supremacy must acknowledge the country in which white supremacists’ ideology develops and takes root: America. That is the first step to their undoing.
On Monday, Kenneth Frazier, the black CEO at Merck, resigned from his position on the president’s American Manufacturing Council. “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred,” he wrote in a statement. Trump fired back at Frazier in a tweet, saying that now that Frazier has stepped down from his post “he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” Later in the day, the president finally explicitly admonished white supremacists. “Racism is evil,” Mr. Trump said. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” But his censure came two days late and only after he publicly mocked a black man who had served his administration, reducing Trump’s comments to nothing more than lip service.
Donald Trump urged us to nod to our fractious past, to validate and justify it. But deplorable as his statement was, at least he recognized that white supremacy is part of American history. McAuliffe, who condemned white supremacy, did not. Trump’s comment that we must “cherish our history” is not a condemnation of hate but a vindication of it. He is using an age-old white-supremacist tradition, appealing to civility and America’s history to rationalize racism. “Loving one another” and “respecting one another” cannot be held in the same sentence as respecting our history. It is not a history of love or respect.