The killing of Heather Heyer by a Nazi in Charlottesville provoked horror and fear, but also a magnificent response from anti-racists across the US. Michael Bradley examines the tangled relationship between the far-right and President Trump, and the implications for fighting fascism.
The images of Neo-Nazis marching with burning torches, Swastika banners and Confederate flags through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, US, and shouting “Jews will not replace us” were shockingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
And the death of the anti-racist Heather Heyer at the hands of white supremacist James Fields and the injuries to 19 demonstrators as he drove into the crowd was a moment of true horror.
US president Donald Trump’s statements following the events were a classic example of his bombastic style and his endless war on the “liberal” media. Despite his advisers’ attempts to make him present a more presidential image, his statements were so offensive to Heyer’s family that they refused to speak to him.
At a rally of his supporters in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump attacked the media for false reporting of his comments on Charlottesville, saying, “It’s time to expose the crooked media. They’re dishonest people. The only people giving platforms to these hate groups is the media itself and the fake news.”
Trump’s response to Charlottesville seems to have produced genuine discomfort amid the US establishment and the Republican Party. Even former Republican US presidents, George Bush (Junior and Senior), felt under enough pressure to speak out against the events in Virginia.
But Trump’s behaviour has left many rightly anxious that he is opening the door to the rise of the fascist far-right. Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, for example, claims Trump has broken the decades-long “taboo” on fascism, and highlights a Washington Post/ABC News poll showing 9 percent of Americans believing that “holding white supremacist or neo-Nazi views is acceptable”.
Such reactionary ideas can only be boosted when Trump argues for an equivalence between violent fascists and the anti-fascists who came out to oppose them, even after the killing of Heyer.
Time and again he refused to explicitly condemn the fascists and white supremacists, arguing there was blame “on both sides”. He also attacked the violence of the “alt-left”, saying, “I watched those [news reports] very closely, much more closely than you people watched it, and you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”
Trump also argued that the “Unite the Right” protest was not all about neo-Nazis and the KKK. He stated that “not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch.”
It’s difficult to know to whom he was referring.
At the heart of the action In Charlottesville were members of the far-right Vanguard America group and other armed militia, who carried assault weapons and looked for all to see like US army regulars. Other leading white supremacists included Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the Nazi Richard Spencer.
Duke argued the protesters were out to “fulfil the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back”.
As Socialist Worker reported, “The Nazi website Daily Stormer urged its followers, ‘Daily Stormer Book Clubs should do everything they can to get their people out to this event’.” The Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM) called for “all NSM members to be in Charlottesville”.
But while he has failed to condemn the violence of the far-right at Charlottesville he has not called for the patriot militia movement, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, to mobilise in his support (although they have pledged to support his presidency, arms in hand).
Calling for such mobilisations would be at the centre of any serious strategy to create a fascist movement. Trump simply isn’t doing this.
He is not trying to create the kind of mass street movement associated with classical fascism in Italy or Germany. The vehicle he used to win power, the Grand Old Party (the Republicans), may be reactionary but it is not fascist.
So Trump is not a fascist. But he is a right wing racist populist.
Trump is very much an inside player whatever his statements about opposing the “Washington elite”. He is a billionaire with ties to every level of the American establishment. But Trump’s continual flirtation with racist language, his scapegoating of Muslims and migrants and his proven organisational links with elements of the far-right mean that he is laying the ground for the growth of the “Alt-right” (in other words the fascist and racist right).
The pressure of the anti-racist and anti-fascist protests in response to Heather Heyer’s killing at Charlottesville has forced Trump to remove his campaign strategist and chief of staff Steve Bannon from the White House.
This is certainly a scalp for all opponents of the increasingly chaotic Trump camp, although Bannon — now back at his “Alt-right” website, Breitbart — claims, “I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”
During the presidential election Bannon argued that Trump’s campaign embodied the platform of the “Alt-right”. His Breitbart News website had consistently argued for “Western values” and the defence of “white identity”. Two weeks after the Charleston Church massacre in 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof murder nine people at a church service, Breitbart argued for supporters to hoist the Confederate flag high and “fly it with pride”.
Bannon is not the only controversial figure among Trump’s appointments. Policy adviser Stephen Miller was behind the first travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries. He has been open about his hard-right, anti-immigration ideas.
Another White House figure, Sebastian Gorka, was photographed wearing a medal from Vitézi Rend, a group with historical links to Nazi Germany and the murder of Jews in the Holocaust. Trump’s one time press secretary, Sean Spicer, was forced to apologise after claiming Hitler did not use chemical weapons!
This is a dangerous situation. As David Neiwert puts it in his new book, Alt-America, “Not every right wing populist is a fascist, but every fascist is a right wing populist.”
Time and again Trump has argued he opposes racism. But his record says different. Back in 1989 he spent $85,000 dollars campaigning for the execution of five African American and Latino teenagers accused of the rape of a white women. After they were cleared by DNA evidence he still insisted on their guilt.
Trump’s political profile grew alongside the development of the right wing populist movement in the US that produced Sarah Palin’s candidacy for president in 2008 and the birth of the Tea Party in 2009.
The Tea Party was a movement that Neiwert describes as “the most significant manifestation of right wing populism in the nation’s history, certainly since the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s”.
The movement pushed for a more radical populist approach by the Republican Party.
Trump was an important voice for the “birther” movement that grew out of the Tea Party, and claimed Barack Obama was not born in the US and was therefore an illegitimate president.
Trump’s election rallies had the tinge of violence towards protestors that left some making comparisons with fascist events. At various times he has implied Black Lives Matter activists deserve a violent response.
In addition there are his continued calls to “build a wall” to keep out Mexicans and the travel ban targeting Muslims. And there is the White House statement to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day that made no mention of Jews or antisemitism and his failure to attend the White house Passover Seder.
His latest move was to pardon Arizona Sherriff Joe Arpaio, who had been held in contempt of court in a case linked to racial profiling (among a welter of of other horrendous human rights violations).
As comic Trevor Noah said on the Daily Show referring to the case, “For a guy who’s not racist, Donald Trump sure has a lot of racist friends.”
But Trump’s rise is not simply a result of racism in the US. At its heart Trump’s support lies in disillusion and demoralisation. Millions of Americans have seen living standards plummet, despite the hope inspired by the election of Barack Obama. Obama’s failure to deliver and Hillary Clinton’s embodiment of the status quo were at the centre of Trump’s victory, not a great surge in support for racist and reactionary ideas.
If you despair it can be easier to stay at home than vote, or to blame your next door neighbour for the problems you face. That’s why Trump’s rhetoric targets migrants and why “the wall” and keeping out Mexicans can seem a real answer to unemployment and economic decline.
The success of Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, for the Democrat ticket in last year’s presidential election, showed the potential to build a radical solution to the economic crisis in the US that could win people away from demoralisation, Trump and those to his extreme right.
The Sanders campaign also showed that many thousands of young Americans are willing to fight back. If the death of Heyer made America look as if it had reached its midnight of the century, the response to events in Charlottesville has been an inspiration for socialists and anti-racists everywhere.
There were some 700 solidarity protests across the US after Charlottesville. Tens of thousands of anti-Nazis dwarfed a tiny far-right “free speech” rally in Boston in late August. Counter protesters forced the cancellation of a far-right event in San Francisco, and anti-fascist protests were also held in Chicago.
This resistance has changed the atmosphere dramatically and put the far-right on the defensive. Far-right rallies have been cancelled across the country. A swathe of neo-Nazis who took part in the violence at the Unite the Right event have been sacked from their jobs or thrown off college campuses.
The bravery of those activists who opposed the fascists and the state in Charlottesville is an inspiration to all of us. The anti-racist movement has a crucial job to do in the US to follow up on the wave of outrage that Heyer’s killing created.
The violence at Charlottesville and the whole debate about the Confederate statues goes back to the brutal heart of America.
The richest nation on earth was built on the brutality of slavery and the slaughter of the Native American population.
Every step forward for ordinary people, the end of slavery, the struggle for civil rights, have all been wrested from the hands of the rich and the powerful through struggle.
Heyer’s last post on Facebook said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. She was right. Her death and the events in Charlottesville have to be a wake-up call for the whole movement.
In Britain we have to do our part by opposing any visit by Trump to the UK and by building a mass movement against racism and fascism here.
Trump said of the removal of Confederate statues: “So, this week it’s Robert E Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? So, you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
But Lee’s statue isn’t simply a part of American culture and history. Confederate statues are a potent living symbol of slavery and oppression in America. The Confederacy fought the bloodiest war in US history in an attempt to maintain the enslavement of more than 4 million people, and many of its generals executed African American soldiers, who fought for the union, when captured.
Of the 700 or so Confederate monuments in the Southern states the vast majority were erected not at the end of the Civil War but between the 1890s and 1950s, with the biggest spike in construction between 1900 and 1920.
The statues were constructed as a physical and ideological support for the “Jim Crow” laws that were used to systematically discriminate against and disenfranchise African American people. “Jim Crow” was introduced to wipe out the gains made by Radical Reconstruction governments in the South in the wake of the Civil War that had seen black people (and poor whites) free to vote and black politicians elected to high office.
The statues were there to bolster and legitimise support for the murderous actions of the KKK and violent resistance to the civil rights movement and attempts to end segregation.
They stand in marked contrast to the lack of monuments that mark the terror lynchings of black people in the Southern states — only six out of the 4,084 lynchings carried out from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to 1950 are commemorated by monuments.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre has charted 1,300 markers celebrating Confederate figures, including 109 public schools named after them, many of which have a majority of African American students.