There is fire and fury today on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Neo-nazis and white supremacists, some bearing guns, are violently protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and attacking anti-racist counter-protestors.
David Duke has declared that this is the fulfillment of President Trump’s vision for America.
“We are determined to take our country back,” Duke said from the rally, calling it a “turning point.” “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
David Duke was a neo-Nazi/racist long before Trump became a political figure. He is no doubt seeking to exploit this situation. More importantly, he is stoking embers and flames of white racial and racist resentment that have a long contemporary history (the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and a much longer history (slavery; Jim Crow; structures of institutionalized racism that persist into the present). What is happening today in Virginia is not due to “Trump,” and combating both right-wing extremism and underlying structures of racism, and also the structures of economic dislocation that generate a politics of resentment, requires much more than criticizing Trump.
AT THE SAME TIME, electoral politics matters, and executive politics matters, and these these are not mere “expressions” of underlying social and economic causes. Trump ran an extremist, right-wing populist and xenophobic campaign, against the political establishment in general. His campaign centered on mobilizing white racism and resentment and normalizing and legitimizing the so-called “alt right.” As President he has installed a set of powerful FAR-right figures–Bannon, Flynn, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, the crank who wrote the NSC memo–at the highest reaches of political power, many in the White House. He has actively attacked all establishment media in favor of Breitbart-style “truth.” He has regularly employed violent rhetoric about his opponents. He has invited violence against protestors and encouraged police violence against suspects. He has vilified Black Lives Matter. Trump has done all of this and more. And so David Duke is not “wrong” when he claims to be “true” to the Trump agenda. Because Duke, Spencer, and the rest, have been encouraged, mobilized, and normalized by Trump.
To that extent, it is impossible to understand, and to combat, what is happening right now in Charlottesville, Virginia without recognizing the danger that Trump and Trumpism poses to social justice and to liberal democracy.
Saying this is not “hysterical” or “tyrranophobic.” And it does not reduce everything to Trump, or insist that other dynamics and institutions are not also responsible. In my opinion saying this is a precondition of serious political analysis right now. There are other things worth saying too. But to avoid THIS is, I am afraid, mistaken.