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Three lessons from Charlottesville

Michael Knigge
August 15, 2017

For researchers of the extreme right in the United States, much of what happened in Charlottesville was not a surprise, but a manifestation of an alarming trend. Still, three important things stand out.

President Trump makes his statement on Charlottesville
Image: Getty Images/C. Kleponis

The national and international outrage at the hatred and violence displayed openly at an extreme-right gathering in Charlottesville that left one woman dead caused was only compounded by what was widely regarded as an inadequately slow and haphazard public response by US President Donald Trump.

For scholars who study the extreme right in the United States, however, last weekend's outburst of racism, violence and hatred was not in itself unique, said Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who focuses on the far right in the United States and in Europe.

That's because the potential for violence is generally great at rallies such as the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, especially when extreme right members are confronted by militant left-wing opposition groups such as the antifa, he explained.

"Analyses based on data from the United States Extremist Crime Database show that hundreds have been killed by violent far-right extremists, including white supremacists, in the United States just in the last 25 years,” said Jeff Gruenewald, an investigator at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism who studies extremist violence at Indiana University concurred.

Also not new, note the scholars, are efforts to try to unite the various groups on the extreme right of the political spectrum. Still, they argue, three important aspects distinguish what happened in Charlottesville from other incidents of extreme right violence.

Extremists hold confederate and Nazi flags in Charlottesville
Extremists hold confederate and Nazi flags in CharlottesvilleImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/E.Molli

Attracting segments

First, unlike previous efforts to unite the extreme right, the gathering in Charlottesville succeeded in attracting various segments of the movement.

"Pretty much the whole right spectrum came out, which is not so common in the US that neo-nazis and klansmen and identitarians all come together," said Mudde.

"Yes, the size of the rally and reported representation of several types of extreme far-right groups seems unique," concurred Gruenewald.

Car as a weapon

Second, the apparent use of a car as a tool to inflict violence in Charlottesville seems new.

"White supremacists in the US have traditionally relied on firearms and other conventional weapons to commit deadly violence, so the use of an automobile to commit a deadly attack is also unique," said Gruenewald. 

Slow response from the president

And third, President Donald Trump's slow response to explicitly single out and denounce racism and the extreme right in respond to events in Charlottesville also stands out.

In his first statement on Charlottesville denounced bigotry and hate "from all sides." After his remarks and his omission to explicitly denounce racism and the extreme right drew sharp criticism even from fellow Republicans, the White House issued a curt statement the following day, stating that the president's remarks rebuking bigotry "of course" included the extreme right, even if it was not explicitly mentioned.

After the criticism still did not subside, President Trump finally delivered a statement on Monday in which he explicitly denounced racism and the extreme right, but not before lauding the state of US economy and his own role in it, prior to speaking out against racism.  

Trump leaves the stage after making comments at his golf club
Trump leaves the stage after making comments at his golf clubImage: picture alliance/dpa/AP/P. M. Monsivais

Significant pause

"This is a president who generally responds within seconds in very clear language and now it takes him forever," said Mudde. That he did not in this case, is therefore significant and unique, he added.

"A lot of people think it shows that he sympathizes with them”, said Mudde. "I don't think that Trump identifies with anything or any group, and definitely not neo-Nazis or the League of the South which he has probably never heard of."

"But what it says at the very least, is that he is not triggered by it," said Mudde. "And that is remarkable for a man who is triggered by everything. Any type of attack by an undocumented immigrant or by a Muslim, or violence surrounding Black Lives Matter and he tweets within a minute, because it triggers him."

For the University of Georgia's Mudde, what Trump tweets – or in this case does not tweet – is not a strategy thought out by the president himself or his advisors, it is simply and plainly Trump himself.  

"And there is this attack and it doesn't trigger him and I think that says a lot," said Mudde. It shows, he explained, that Trump is very insensitive to racism which was evident already in the campaign when he repeatedly retweeted obvious racist content.

Far-right figures in the White House

For Peter Simi, a scholar of political extremism and violence at Chapman University, the president's hesitancy to strongly denounce the extreme right might also have to do with the fact that Trump has several far-right figures working in the White House in various capacities: "I don't think it's much of leap to say this may have something to do with his reluctance."

What's more, "Trump also courted these voters and they clearly returned the favor by supporting him like no other 'mainstream' political figure that I have observed in the past 20 years."

That's why President Trump also bears a moral, not a legal responsibility, for emboldening the extreme right in the US, according to Mudde. His campaign, he noted, not only has been very much focused on white identity and white victimhood and thereby fueled similar sentiments, but it also failed to clearly distance itself from white nationalists. "As a consequence these groups feel emboldened and that they have a friend in the White House."

Trump's late outright denunciation of the extreme right won't change their view of him.

"This was expected by everyone, including the far right, who will see it as a strategic decision by Trump, which he makes because he has to politically, not because he really believes in it," said Mudde.

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