Editor’s Note: Jess Row is the author of White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, just published by Graywolf Press. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
The Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville in 2017 was the largest eruption of white supremacist violence in the United States in a generation, if only the most visible of thousands of incidents that followed the 2016 election. August 11 and 12, 2019, mark the second anniversary of the violence, which claimed the life of the anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others. Two police officers died in a helicopter crash.
That weekend in August 2017 was also the moment when the so-called alt-right reached a temporary peak of popularity; in the wake of public outrage, lawsuits and even a few FBI investigations, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups fell into disarray, and the most vocal backer of the movement, Breitbart News, went into a swift decline. These groups have yet to stage a similar event—although the terror itself has continued, carried out primarily by radicalized individuals, like the gunmen in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting or the El Paso massacre last weekend.
The partial disintegration and discrediting of the alt-right was one positive outcome of Charlottesville; there have been others. The violence of August 2017 helped galvanize a broad anti-racist political coalition that has achieved some notable successes in the past two years, from the 2018 opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first monument to lynching victims, in Alabama, to the election of politicians and district attorneys – like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner – who are committed to ending mass incarceration, to the first-ever Congressional hearings on reparations for slavery this past June.
The real news, unfortunately, is what hasn’t happened: nothing has stopped the march of Donald Trump’s white supremacist policies and rhetoric, which have become so folded into the reality of everyday waking life in the United States that Americans – even the most politically savvy or left-leaning – are constantly in danger of accepting them as our purported new normal. Trump’s latest attacks on four Congresswomen, and his repetition of age-old racist tropes about crime and decay in Baltimore, have only cemented a familiar pattern: commentators on the left and in the center describe his behavior, accurately, as racist, while Republicans, save a few outliers, act as if his statements never happened. Any observer of US politics can tell you why: Trump is speaking to his base – roughly a third of the American electorate – who respond favorably to racist incitement and the outrage it generates on the other side of the political spectrum.
As a white writer who writes extensively about race, I’ve been observing this situation closely since well before the 2016 election, and I’ve been dismayed by the unwillingness of so many of my white peers – people who are personally horrified by Trump and his success – to come to grips with what is happening in our country. Among white centrist Democrats and liberals there’s been a great deal of talk about the importance of civility and free expression, and an explosion of anxiety about how the Democratic Party has lost touch with a monolithic entity called “the white working class.” There’s been much less discussion in the national press about the underlying political transformation that made Trump’s election possible: the rapid growth in racial resentment and white nationalism as primary issues – even single issues – among conservative and right-leaning white Americans.
How did this happen? In time this may become one of those questions historians ponder for decades, like the exact origins of the Third Reich, or the improbable success of British imperialism in India. My own theory has to do with space and the American landscape: how the growth of suburbs, the ever-creeping sprawl outside American cities, has managed to keep white and nonwhite Americans physically and psychically apart, so that many white Americans my age (born in the 1970s) have grown up in what I call white dreamtime – never having to think seriously about racism or witness its effects. For conservative white Americans, this meant that President Obama’s election, and the widespread public dialogue about race that followed it, felt like an existential threat – preparing them to rally around Trump with the intensity that propelled him to an unlikely victory.
But this state of dreamy suspension – what James Baldwin once called the “sunlit playpen” of white American existence – also explains why so many of my white liberal compatriots are not able to grasp that racism has become a national emergency, undoing the social fabric and the democratic institutions of the United States. They may be seriously alarmed about Trump’s assault on civil rights, outraged about his immigration policies, and willing to call him racist, but they’re still hanging on to the belief that one day – in 2020, or at worst, 2024 – all this will be over, and the US will have come back to its senses. This is especially true among the kind of white people I spend most of my time with – professionals, academics, businesspeople – whose lives haven’t gotten measurably worse in the last two years, and in some cases, because of the booming stock market, have improved. If you travel in those circles, it’s still possible to believe life is good.
Many of Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, are committed to a radical transformation of American society and politics from which there is no going back. They either do not believe, or do not care, that the president was elected in part through the aid of Russian intelligence. They don’t mind that he regularly makes remarks about staying in office after his two terms are over. In short, these voters are willing to sacrifice (or at best, make light of) the foundations of American society (democracy, free expression, the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, voting rights for all citizens) in order to keep a white supremacist in power. Ailish Hopper, a professor of peace studies at Goucher College, recently told me that the United States is devolving into a state of “national ethnic conflict,” which puts it on the same footing as 1990s Yugoslavia or Northern Ireland in the 1970s. In other words, we are in the early stages of either an authoritarian consolidation of power or a civil war, or both.
Many voters in Trump’s party – what the GOP has become – embrace these possibilities. Most Democrats and liberals I know don’t want to admit they exist. They’re not willing to accept the truth that is staring us all in the face: explicit white nationalist sentiments, like telling an African American to “go back where you came from,” actually encourages Trump supporters’ embrace of their man. Polls taken after those racist comments showed that approval for Trump among Republicans went up by as much as 5%.
Charlottesville should have been a moral turning point for the right to reject racist politics, but it wasn’t. The right has united around a white supremacist president, and the rest of us – the anti-racist majority – need to do everything in our power to fight back.