A year on from Charlottesville, white supremacists are holding a rally at the White House as a coterie of their most vehement cohorts eye a political seat, writes Bette Browne.
On the anniversary of a white supremacist march that left one person dead in the city of Charlottesville, the US is
bracing for a “white rights” rally near the White House this weekend as the far-right movement catapults itself deeper into the mainstream since the election of Donald Trump.
The location of the march in the heart of the nation’s capital is one indication that white supremacists have long come out of the shadows. Some have become even more ambitious in the year since Charlottesville, aiming to move from the streets into the corridors of political power.
This is evidenced by the fact that a record number of white nationalists are either standing for elective office in the midterm elections in November or are championing the cause of like-minded candidates.
At least nine candidates in the midterms have ties to white nationalists or Nazi groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s civil rights monitor.
That’s more than in any other election in modern US history.
They are taking heart, says the group, from the fact that even though Trump sparked outrage by refusing to outrightly condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis after Charlottesville, he has since continued to exploit America’s racial divide at many of his rallies.
Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Centre goes so far as to accuse the president of “normalising racism”.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley pulled no punches when summing up the president’s reaction to last year’s rally.
“In the annals of US history,” he said, “Charlottesville will be seen as [the] moment when we saw that the president was a bigot.”
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which has been monitoring hate groups for over 40 years, said: “In the past, [white-power groups] saw no space for themselves in the public sphere. You’d see the Aryan Nations [neo-Nazi groups] saying, ‘We never really thought politics was worth our time.’”
Both Trump and a new group of racist candidates, she contended, have had the effect of “re-engaging white supremacists in the political system”.
She said last year’s Charlottesville rally “left the nation in shock and forced us to face a brutal reality — that hate and bigotry long simmering in the shadows had erupted into the mainstream.
A year later, the racist “alt-right,” [white supremacists] whose hate speech and actions garnered national focus, is struggling, but their violent vision remains a persistent threat.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate crimes, says anti-Semitic incidents surged by 34% in 2016
compared with the previous year and in the first quarter of 2017, the number jumped 86% compared with the same period in 2016.
Given the size of the US population of 325m, the proportion of such incidents is relatively small but is nevertheless causing fears it could grow. Indeed, the number of hate groups in the country grew by 4% in 2017 and has risen 20% since 2014, according to figures from the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
It says 2017 was the third straight year to see a rise in the number of hate groups, which it has now documented in all 50 states.
There were also 233 chapters of black nationalist hate groups, such as the Nation of Islam, in 2017, compared to 193 the previous year.
It’s against this volatile background and the still raw wounds of Charlottesville that white supremacists are hoping to gain political clout in the coming elections.
One of their leaders, the self-styled “white civil rights activist” Jason Kessler, won approval in June from the National Parks Service to hold a rally of about 400 people in Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House.
Kessler, who organised last year’s demonstration, initially applied for the rally to be held in Charlottesville again but his application was turned down by the city. His subsequent efforts to sue the authorities for denying his application failed.
Meanwhile, a coalition of groups including Black Lives Matter is planning a “United Against Hate” counter-demonstration not far from the White House.
Some suggest the “Unite the Right” movement has largely been enfeebled by legal actions and bans on the use of some social media platforms after Charlottesville, and that the Washington rally could turn out to be its last stand.
They cite the fact that organisers of the 2017 Unite the Right have been embroiled in a number of lawsuits filed by victims of the violence that took place and which saw the death of one counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, when white supremacist James Alex Fields drove his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter- of demonstrators. Fields has since been charged with first-degree murder, as well as federal hate crimes.
While the white supremacist movement has indeed splintered since Charlottesville, what appears to be happening now is that it is simply seeking to change its modus operandi.
Many are putting away the Nazi insignia and swastikas so evident in Charlottesville last year, and aiming for political clout at local and national level under the banner of Trump’s Republican Party.
The president has never endorsed their agenda but they perceive that from his incendiary rhetoric against immigrants and other vulnerable groups that he is sympathetic to their ideas.
The majority of the candidates, many of whom have been selected by winning Republican Party primaries, are either neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, or white supremacists.
“They are, by their very presence, shifting the pole of what most Americans find to be acceptable political discourse,” says civil rights activist Eric K Ward of the Western States Centre. Some of these candidates support Trump, while others regret having voted for him.
Take Arthur Jones, for example. He is running in Illinois’ 3rd congressional district and is a former leader of the American Nazi Party.
He says he voted for Trump, but now regrets it because “the Jewish lobby has Donald Trump locked up. “I don’t think the man realises how naive he appears to the rest of the world. He’s nothing but a puppet in their hands. I’m embarrassed that I voted for him. If I could take the vote back, I would in a minute.”
Jones’ campaign website includes a section called ‘Holocaust?’ in which he argues that the “idea that 6m Jews, were killed by the National Socialist government of Germany, in World War II, is the biggest, blackest lie in history.”
The state and national Republican Party says it wants nothing to do with Jones. Yet 20,000 people voted for his candidacy in the party’s March primary when he ran uncontested and he is now on the Republican ticket in November.
Then there is John Fitzgerald, who is running in California’s 11th congressional district. Fitzgerald denies the Holocaust and has sent out robocalls to constituents declaring that Jews are “taking over the world” and “must be stopped”.
Previously, Fitzgerald ran for Congress as a Democrat in the 2010 and 2012 primaries but won only 15% and 7% of the vote, respectively. He said that while he ran as a Democrat in those elections “I wasn’t really a Democrat. But I was just trying to get in the system.”
Fitzgerald writes on his website:
Seth Grossman is on the Republican ticket in New Jersey’s 2nd congressional district. He has shared articles from prominent white supremacist websites, including one that claimed black people are inferior.
He also once claimed that “diversity is a bunch of crap and un-American”. The Republican Party said recently it was withdrawing its support of Grossman and called on him “to reconsider his candidacy”. He insists he will stay on the ticket, vowing to defeat Democrat Jeff Van Drew.
Paul Nehlen, in Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district, is running to fill the seat of retiring US House of
Representatives speaker Paul Ryan.
He has already been banned from Twitter for racist and anti-Semitic tweets, including racist tweets about Meghan Markle.
Corey Steward, in Virginia, is running for the US senate. Steward has wrapped himself in the Confederate flag and opposed the removal of Confederate monuments in Virginia.
He embraces the idea that slavery was not the catalyst for the Civil War. He also once called fellow Republican Paul Nehlen a “personal hero”, and initially refused to revoke his praise before later disavowing him and claiming he was unfamiliar with Nehlen’s extreme beliefs.
Russell Walker, running in North Carolina’s state house district 48, says “God is a racist and a white supremacist” and that whites are the “supreme group”.
According to his website, he says he believes that “the Jews are not Semitic, they are satanic as they all descend from Satan”.
In many of these states the Republican party has disavowed these candidates, but nevertheless many have
succeeded in winning party primaries and securing a spot in the November’s elections.
Republican Party officials are alarmed at the prospect that even if these candidates lose, as most probably will, their very candidacies could further damage the reputation of the party by campaigning under its banner.
And they could also seriously damage America by mainstreaming intolerance and racism in the political system.
The results of these coming elections will reveal much about the state of America in the age of Trump and what, if anything, it has learned in the year since Charlottesville.