Torch-bearing masses chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans – a scene to expect in the history books rather than 2017, yet a surge of rightwing demonstration has gripped a fearful and paranoid USA since the arrival of President Trump.

  • United Nations committee issues “early warning” yesterday over conditions in the US and urges Trump administration to “unequivocally and unconditionally” reject discrimination as Trump pardons brutal anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio. 
  • Is Trump to blame for “electrifying” the radical right and bringing hate, bias and racism into the mainstream?
  • Does Trump need the racists more than the racists need Trump?

It was on August 12th when 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed by a driver who rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters demonstrating against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

 Nineteen people were injured in the car-ramming incident, and another 15 people were wounded in separate clashes related to the far-right march after hundreds of white nationalists converged for a “Unite the Right” march, protesting the removal of a statue of a general who had fought for the pro-slavery Confederacy during the US Civil War.
The far-right demonstrators included neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members and clashed violently with counter-protesters with Ms Heyer, a local citizen who decided to use her free speech rights and peacefully counter protest, becoming a tragic casualty of the rise in right wing violence.

 

“There is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism?”

As outrage built in the aftermath of the killing, attention turned to Donald Trump. With signs of support from the far right protesters, many had feared that post-election predictions had proved correct – that the radical right felt emboldened by “their guy” in power to the point of sanctioning the murder of fellow human beings.

Trump’s initial response did little to quell those fears…

President Trump’s first reaction to the deadly violence stopped short of condemning the actions of neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan present at the rally and received bipartisan criticism.

“Before I make a statement, I like to know the facts. There is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism?” Trump said. “And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”

He later criticized “alt-left” groups that he claimed were “very, very violent” saying there is “blame on both sides” and that “there are two sides to the story.”

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee,” Mr Trump said. “This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” he said, later pointing out that both the first and third American presidents had owned slaves.

“George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? … you’re changing history, you’re changing culture…you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”

America: A White Man’s Country?

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organisation, says that “Trump’s run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country.”

It is a viewpoint shared by many experts and commentators who have noted with dismay a newly confident and highly active far right organizing at a rate unseen since the 60’s.

Harvard professor Dr Cornel West believes that “the alt-right is a new danger. We have a right-wing gangster in the White House who emboldens them, who empowers them. So they feel they have permission for their hate to come out in public, and maybe even harm others. We are in a dangerous moment.”

But can we blame Trump for this? Or is the latest blow for race relations in the US symptomatic of a greater failing than the election of one populist politician?

A Moral Failure of Leadership

In cautioning the Trump administration, the UN has added the USA to a shameful list that includes war-torn African countries and opened the eyes of many Americans as to the frayed and fragile state of race relations in the most powerful country in the world.

“(Trump) should take the Cerd’s early warning very seriously and rescind its decision to eviscerate the mandates and budgets of US civil rights institutions; end its attempt to exclude white nationalism from the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism programs; and end immigration and refugee policies based on anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment.”

While the Trump era is graphically exposing the racism and bigotry at the heart of the USA, it would be foolish to assume that these issues have magically appeared in the 8 months since Trump became president and point towards deep-seated issues that have been simmering away for years, ignored and deflected by previous governments and administrations.

These kind of issues simply don’t appear overnight.

Does Trump Need Racists More Than Racists Need Trump?

With truly abysmal approval levels and an administration lurching from scandal to scandal, its not too hard to see why Trump has been careful to avoid condemnation of a group on which he can count for votes.

Many are linking the highly political pardoning of Joe Arpaio, who never apologized for his program of violent immigrant removal, with an attempt to pacify his hard-line supporters.

This constant muddying of the waters, equating neo-Nazis with peaceful protesters, has been a hallmark of Trump’s time in office, one that pushes a “fake news” agenda as a defensive play to rally support for an embattled administration at a time of crisis.

With approval rates still falling among core demographics that won him power in the first place, we can expect Trump to lean on his far-right supporters more and more in his bid for re-election.

Only time will tell the societal consequences of cosying up the right wing, but thats a risk that the 45th President is clearly willing to take.