Trump set them free

Adam Shatz

In late July, HBO unveiled plans for a new show set in an alternative reality, in which the Confederate South, led by General Robert E. Lee, has successfully seceded from the Union. D.B. Weiss, one of the producers of Confederate, explained the thinking behind the series: ‘What would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked DC, if the South had won – that just always fascinated me.’

Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, Weiss got his answer, with the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration against the planned removal of Lee’s statue in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). This ‘pastoral scene of the gallant South’, as Billie Holiday might have described it, was open to anyone who hated black people and Jews (‘Jews will not replace us’ was one of the cries), from members of the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis. Emboldened by having an ally in the highest office in the land, they came with Confederate flags, swastikas, medieval-looking wooden shields, torches and, of course, guns. They came to fight. One young woman in the counter-demonstration was murdered by a man who rammed his car into her, weaponising his vehicle just as jihadists have done in Nice and London. A helicopter surveilling the event crashed, killing the two officers inside. Dozens were injured.

For the next two days, the world waited for Trump to denounce those responsible for the pogrom. The week before, he threatened North Korea with nuclear incineration (‘fire and fury’). Trump is so hollow a person, so impulsive a leader, that it’s easy to miss the great paradox of his presidency: that a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead.

The ‘Unite the Right’ protest was a reminder that the dream of the Confederacy has never died: the vision of Herrenvolk democracy has continued to smoulder since Union troops left the vanquished but still defiant South, scarcely a decade after the end of the war. Eric Foner has described the Reconstruction era, when ex-slaves became citizens and the first biracial southern governments were elected to power, as America’s ‘unfinished revolution’. The battle over Reconstruction never ended; it has simply changed forms. And the struggle to achieve full enfranchisement for black people in the South has produced many martyrs: Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King; James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. And now Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal killed in Emancipation Park.

It is true, as some have sanctimoniously pointed out on Twitter, that even in her death, Heyer was a beneficiary of white privilege, remembered as a ‘strong woman’, rather than subjected to the invasive background check typically meted out to unarmed black people killed by the police. But her biography suggests that she would have been the first to object to any special treatment. ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,’ she wrote in her last Facebook post. She broke up with a boyfriend who expressed unease over her friendship with a black man, her manager at work. White supremacists have reserved a particular loathing for white women in the civil rights struggle: ‘nigger lovers’, they call them. One white woman at the counter-demonstration reported a jeering fascist as saying to her: ‘I hope you are raped by a nigger’; Heyer is likely to have heard similar things. For white supremacists, the end of white rule has always meant the conquest of white women by men of colour, from the rapacious emancipated slaves in Birth of a Nation to Trump’s immigrant ‘rapists’.

The man charged with Heyer’s murder, James Alex Fields Jr, a 20-year-old from Ohio, fits the usual terrorist profile: a radical loser without a father, intelligent but semi-educated and isolated, drunk on visions of grandeur on the stage of history. His murder weapon was a car, rather than a gun, but he was cut from the same cloth as Dylann Roof, who shot dead nine worshippers at a church in Charleston two years ago. Fields wrote school papers celebrating the Third Reich and shouted racist curses at home, but neither his teacher nor his mother thought to report on his ‘radicalisation’. Even if they had, the government is unlikely to have cared. In February, the Trump administration announced that it would no longer investigate white nationalists, who have been responsible for a large share of violent hate crimes in the United States; the focus of the ‘countering violent extremism’ programme would be limited to Islamist radicals. White nationalists were exultant. ‘Donald Trump is setting us free,’ the Daily Stormer website crowed.

When Fields set off for Charlottesville, he told his mother he would be attending a rally for Trump, which wasn’t entirely a fib. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Klan and a former Louisiana state representative, whose endorsement Trump could hardly bring himself to disavow, said that Unite the Right was intended to ‘fulfill the promise of Donald Trump’.

The fascists in Charlottesville are a fringe, not a mass movement, but they are a coddled fringe: hence Trump’s initial attempt to blame ‘many sides’ for the violence, as if victims and perpetrators inhabited the same moral plane. The fascists represent the hard edge of the coalition that brought him to power, and they express, though in a cruder form, the ideology of his advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. When – under apparently intense pressure from his aides – Trump finally denounced white supremacists as ‘evil’ in a speech read off a teleprompter, he sounded like a little boy forced to eat his spinach, or to rat on his friends. No president has been so easily flattered, so thrilled by the sight of his own name, which his advisers include in policy memos in order to hold his attention. To repudiate a follower is not only to threaten his electoral base, as Bannon surely counselled him; it is to threaten the supply of adulation that is Trump’s lifeline, and the only thing, aside from loyalty to Trump, that he has raised to a principle.

James Comey discovered the costs of betraying this ‘loyalty’; and so has Kenneth Frazier, the head of the pharmaceutical company Merck. On Monday, Frazier – one of America’s most prominent black executives, the son of a janitor who, unlike Trump, can reasonably claim to be a self-made man – resigned from a presidential business council in protest at Trump’s response to Charlottesville. Within less than an hour, even as he continued to withhold any condemnation of the perpetrators, Trump was on Twitter: ‘Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!’

Trump’s Republican allies have scrambled to denounce the violence, in ever more pious tones, while falling far short of withdrawing their support for Trump. Listening to Paul Ryan, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Orrin Hatch inveigh against the evil of white supremacy, you might have thought they’d just dusted off their copies of Between the World and Me. They can hardly claim to have been shocked by Trump’s response, however. As erratic as Trump has been, he has been remarkably consistent on the question of race. He cut his teeth in a real estate firm – his father’s – that was investigated by the FBI for not renting to blacks. In 1989 he took out an ad in four newspapers, calling for the execution of five young black and Latino men charged with raping a jogger in Central Park; even when the ‘Central Park Five’ were exonerated 13 years later, he insisted on their guilt. He built a campaign on the claim that Obama was not American, appealing to the oldest prejudices about black American rights to citizenship. He has revelled in the idea of police brutality.

What, then, explains the florid paroxysms of Republican anti-racism in the face of Charlottesville? The purpose is not to expunge white supremacy from American life, but to expunge its naked expression, which Trump, to their embarrassment, has been reckless enough to encourage. Since the Nixon era, Republicans have understood that the party’s plans to favour the white ‘silent majority’ depend on coded language that everyone understands but which can be plausibly denied. Cruz and Hatch may be distressed by Trump’s response to Charlottesville, but neither of them objects to his policies on race, which amount to the most far-reaching assault on civil rights since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whom the New York Times has hailed as a ‘forceful figure’ for his comparatively forthright condemnation of the violence, has led these efforts. He has reduced the civil rights division of the Justice Department, promised to end oversight of police departments, and proposed relaunching the drug war that helped lead to the scandal of mass incarceration. His idea of a ‘civil rights investigation’ is to investigate cases of discrimination against white students in universities, or – Trump’s favourite – claims of ‘voter fraud’ in the 2016 presidential election, a flagrant attempt to suppress the vote among blacks and Latinos who supported Hillary Clinton.

During the election, Trump’s attacks on Muslims, undocumented immigrants and other non-white people were portrayed by some members of the press as a kind of rhetorical extravagance: the lurid expression, like his tower and his casinos, of a tabloid clown. The implicit suggestion was that his racism needn’t be taken too seriously, and that it wasn’t, in any case, the major reason for his popularity. A number of prominent liberal intellectuals – in a move that suggested self-flagellation but was closer to racial blindness – claimed that if Trump was popular, it was because of liberal condescension to the fabled white working class. The identity politics of the left, they suggested, was driving misunderstood and maligned blue-collar workers into Trump’s arms. As it turned out, Trump’s support among whites ranged across class lines, and was particularly strong among middle and upper-middle-class whites. They were driven into his arms by identity politics – their own. They understood, and welcomed, Trump’s promise to make America great again, for what it really meant: to make it white again, and to take back the White House from a black president.

Yet the spectre of a black president continues to haunt the White House, not least in Trump’s imagination. In his most revealing, because least rehearsed, response to Charlottesville, Trump said that racism ‘has been going on for a long time in our country – not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It has been going on for a long, long time.’ Trump often invokes Obama, not least when he is trying to dismantle national healthcare: like a security blanket, the name ‘Obama’ seems to provide Trump with a sense of mooring. Still, this was a curious remark, coming from someone who has had little patience for history or the longue durée, and who had rather strongly implied that if America had a race problem, it was Obama’s doing. One possible interpretation of this cryptic (and typically ungrammatical) statement is that Trump could hardly be expected to end racism, when the country’s first black president, of all people, could not: a back-handed, and racist, compliment to his predecessor. Another is that Trump remains perversely fixated on the figure of Obama, aware that without him, and without the anti-Obama backlash he spearheaded, he would not be president.


  • 16 August 2017 at 6:16am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    "During the election, Trump’s attacks on Muslims, undocumented immigrants and other non-white people were portrayed by some members of the press as a kind of rhetorical extravagance: the lurid expression, like his tower and his casinos, of a tabloid clown."

    Funny how they don't apply this to his attacks on the media, which really are play-acting (even if it was constitutionally possible for Trump to shut down liberal newspapers and imprison their journalists, he wouldn't; they are far too useful to him). No - when Trump has a go at them personally, they take him in deadly earnest as a threat to Freedom of the Press.

  • 16 August 2017 at 8:04am
    Graucho says:
    If you thought Nixon was paranoid and vindictive, you ain't seen nothing yet

  • 16 August 2017 at 1:40pm
    piffin says:
    The dream of a Herrenvolk democracy was hardly confined to the South. It was also the desire of virtually all white northerners, incl. Abraham Lincoln himself who wanted American blacks to be "returned" to Africa. Even through most of the 20th century, the only white Americans who stood with the NAACP were communists. Racism is one of the core features of the American Creed.

  • 16 August 2017 at 4:11pm
    IPFreely says:
    It gets worse and worse, doesn't it? Threatens nuclear attack on N Korea, and in an aside also threatens Venezuela. The man lives in a fantasy world in which he is the all-mighty, 'greatest president ever...' who can eradicate all of his enemies with a wave of his hand. Delusions of absolute power, the belief that he simply has the power to remove any problem with a Twitter, ignores facts, he lies and lies and lies, his grasp of the issues over which he twitted is minimal and his advisors despair of getting him to understand the real extent of his ignorance. His role model seems to be a certain German dictator. The Americans have a problem.

    • 22 August 2017 at 6:19pm
      kynolover says: @ IPFreely
      Indeed we do have a problem. Unfortunately, so does the rest of the world. For we Americans have put a genuine menace to basic human decency in the White House, a position from which Trump can inflict enormous harm not only on the people and environment of the USA, but also on that of every other nation on this planet.

      I'd wager my retirement savings that for a majority of us Americans, Trump's removal from office cannot come soon enough. But it will take a concerted effort by both American politicians and foreign leaders (as well as the lawyers in the Special Counsel's office) to make that happen. Thus far I've seen nothing of substance emanating from the UK government and its current PM that would help to facilitate the Trump removal process. May and her advisors are understandably afraid to incur Trump's displeasure, much less his wrath, lest he something that would hurt the UK economically or otherwise. In other words, she and they have effectively been bullied into quiescence and submission, just like so many others who have been at Trump's mercy in his past business dealings. (Macron and the French have been even worse; their public display of Trump derrière-kissing was both deplorable and disgusting.)

      Until the world's leaders join the rest of us here in America in condemning Trump for what he clearly and undeniably is--a charlatan, racist, sexist pig, incompetent, fraud, bully, egomaniac, and pathological liar--the politically gutless Republican Party will not act to remove him from office. So since we all face the same problem, I respectfully we all work together to solve it. Only a wanker points out his friend's or neighbor's problem and does nothing meaningful to help fix it.

    • 22 August 2017 at 11:37pm
      Peter Smith says: @ kynolover
      It will, I believe, take much more than help from the wisest people in the world to change matters sufficiently in the United States. Racism was built into the fabric of the edifice erected on a fault-line. Racism in the U.S. is of a different kind from that in every other country. It has been there for so long it is not even seen as the unique strain it is. It is closer to ineradicable than anyone I know is willing to admit. At least in publlc.

    • 23 August 2017 at 8:34am
      davidovich says: @ Peter Smith
      US racism is the template for all racism, it's Weberian ideal type. This murderous fastidiousness extends to the working class in general in a way that rest of the English speaking was never comfortable with. It considered the height of vulgarity in England and Ireland to hang your servants at the office picnic.

    • 23 August 2017 at 8:43am
      davidovich says: @ IPFreely
      The Herrenvolk "democracy" is the kingdom of slaves, analogous to biological kingdoms in general. It is mankind abandoning itself and its inward freedom. Fascism is the power of powerful smells. Capitalism is the standing provocation to this deplorable state of affairs and the state of affairs as its permanent provocation is the means whereby the bourgeoisie compensates itself for its crashing mediocrity and preserves itself from the wrath of its producing classes..

  • 17 August 2017 at 11:04am
    Stu Bry says:
    Bob Dylan playing Only A Pawn In Their Game at the March On Washington comes to mind.

    Time and energy would be better spent opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline, organisations who profit from mass incarceration or corporations who's patterns of pollution overwhelmingly harm minority communities. The urge to fight these groups on the street is understandable but they are an irrelevance and those who focus their ire on them also make themselves irrelevant. Opposition should always be trained on centres of power, placing a small number of genuine Deplorables at the centre of debate makes the debate itself irrelevant and leads to the absurdity of Fox News reporters and Big Pharma execs being able to stand with the left. We see Paul Ryan take a moral stand on Charlottesville while promoting his tax cuts which will harm tens of millions of Americans for decades.

    The left has to be proactive. There are no signs that the lessons of 2016 have been learned.

  • 22 August 2017 at 6:29pm
    ikallicrates says:
    There’s no need to watch a drama set in some imaginary alternate reality to know what the world would have looked like if the South had won the Civil War. Watch the evening news, and you’ll know the South lost the war, but won the peace.

    • 24 August 2017 at 12:21pm
      davidovich says: @ ikallicrates
      It was never a war between North and South, nor was it ever concluded. It was the struggle for a future for those who believed in one and for the past for those who didn't. This is why the Confederacy sentimentalised slavery on its banknotes and the reason class struggle drives tout le monde towards the same abyss to this day.

  • 23 August 2017 at 1:06am
    davidovich says:
    The humiliation of one's fellow human beings is a subtle imperative and the more successful one's own cause and that of one's friends proves to be the more subtle it has actually become. The cause of the world's ills is nothing less than exploitation. The solution, nothing less than an end to it.

  • 23 August 2017 at 8:29am
    davidovich says:
    Capitalism is premised on crippling and enslaving people with one hand while not letting the other know what it is doing. The more successful this proves to be the more profound the kudos that accrues to, and the clearer the conscience of, those who do it. The attainment of this blessed state is the end of all bourgeois life.

    • 24 August 2017 at 12:23pm
      davidovich says: @ davidovich
      The only reason we are not finished with capitalism is that capitalism is not finished with us. This is the secret of alienation and the paradox of complex parasitology in general.

  • 23 August 2017 at 8:55am
    davidovich says:
    The organism that most closely accompanies the rise of the bourgoisie is the smallpox virus. In terms of its persistence, futility and capacity to deform the entire physiognomy of mankind it is also the most analogous.

  • 23 August 2017 at 8:58am
    davidovich says:
    If the monarch inherited a divine right he would be obliged to keep it. The bourgeoisie in that it recognises and is obliged to recognise no such obligation or indeed any at all- to any principle save its own enrichment -is the truly liberal class.

  • 23 August 2017 at 9:10am
    davidovich says:
    The exploitation of working people would not last a minute without an entire panoply of degradation rituals. I visited my doctor today. We were joined by a third year medical student. Naturally I was not consulted. As the consultation continued my doctor offered to syringe my ears. I joked to his student who must have been all of 23 (I working class and in my sixties) that my doctor had always wanted to be a "wax specialist" but had had to graduate as a doctor to do so. Avoiding my gaze and engaging his student he began to laugh derisively about being "a wax doctor". I could have continued this line of free association but it would have meant offering real insult. I clearly was not keeping to my place. Perhaps next time!

  • 23 August 2017 at 9:13am
    davidovich says:
    It is for reasons like this that production is checked, populations abandoned on the street, cities reduced to rubble and hundreds of thousands of innocent people murdered year after year.

    And yes, I am aware millions of US citizens do not have even this sub-standard and bullying medical care.

  • 23 August 2017 at 9:22am
    Graham Winyard says:
    Ingrained racism is a huge problem, but how does this polemic help? Trump and the Republicans are in power because the Democrats failed to convince the white working class voters they have historically relied on, that they still had their interests at heart.
    Berating people who do not see the world and its priorities in the same way as you do is likely to be as successful as the original Charlottesville march in winning over hearts and minds.

  • 23 August 2017 at 9:42am
    davidovich says:
    In general the hue and cry about racism is tripe. Nixon thought nothing of shooting dead lily white students in Ohio, just as the French authorities thought nothing of jailing the revolutionaries of mai-juin for life. The question for non-whites as for whites is: just how subaltern do we want to be?

  • 23 August 2017 at 11:26am
    davidovich says:
    People do not start revolutions and revolutions do not start because they are anything that people do normally, or for that matter, at any time. Revolution is the death of the present, it occurs because the alternative is the death of the future.

  • 23 August 2017 at 11:34am
    davidovich says:
    Check out Arlo Guthrie's monologue The Last Guy. It's priceless. The POTUS is on Twitter. Where is The Last Guy? Smoking weed with Tony Blair and Steve Bannon?

  • 23 August 2017 at 12:33pm
    davidovich says:
    Or posting a rant on LRB?

  • 24 August 2017 at 1:11am
    davidovich says:
    Flaubert truly understood doctors in a way that Cronin truly didn't. This is not only the difference between French literature and British journalism but French society and British society and even the French bourgeoisie and the British bourgoisie. The French bourgeoisie does not dare to be philistine. It is the pugnacious glory of the British.

  • 24 August 2017 at 1:13am
    davidovich says:
    Trump is this phistinism approaching the terminus of sense altogether.

  • 24 August 2017 at 1:36am
    davidovich says:
    The first resort of a US incumbent is to threaten, the last resort to get down on all fours and snarl.

  • 24 August 2017 at 5:02am
    davidovich says:
    In the US you form teams according to your colour. In Australia a victim is chosen by a complicated collegial system of voting with a sporting element of chance and then bashed more or less to the point of invalidism. This is the superior firm of settler colonial democracy.

  • 24 August 2017 at 6:48am
    davidovich says:
    Americanism is mass murder with a democratic haircut. We don't want it. We were starting to leave genocide behind. Now the American idiots will likely draw us into suicide.

  • 24 August 2017 at 2:08pm
    davidovich says:
    There is no poetry after Auschwitz. This always struck me as extreme until a kindly poet explained me why. Yes, I understand it now, and how well events illustrate it.

  • 24 August 2017 at 2:28pm
    davidovich says:
    When they crucified Christ they left him there as a warning to others and invented the humiliating story that it was the poor who killed him. It was ever the rich of every colour and creed. Then they murdered everyone without exception who might have objected to their hellish and utterly hypocritical doctrines and now they want to destroy all on on earth. As Marx put it, this system oozing blood and filth from every pore is the very triumph of the boot- black peddlers, the stupid, the bloody, the filthy and the incomparably hubristic bourgeois. I wonder if LRB will let me post this. Let's find out.

  • 24 August 2017 at 3:05pm
    davidovich says:
    This horrible future is simply the product of the control of the means of the production and reproduction of human life and its cultural sphere, it's noosphere remaining in a smaller and smaller circle of private hands devoted to keeping that so come hell or high water. It is humanity caught up in the coils of a parisitism that both by accident and design is as neccessary to its social host as it is destructive of it. So much is obvious but increasingly it cannot be ignored.

  • 24 August 2017 at 9:50pm
    davidovich says:
    I notice that the Guardian reports have given coverage to a photo the head of ASIS has had taken of himself with Duterte, he of the death squads, giving the thumbs up. What does this charming piece of theatre confirm or deny?

  • 25 August 2017 at 6:12pm
    Bisenzio says:
    I'm truly sorry that Davidovich's doctor did not have the courtesy to ask him in advance whether he minded the student being present: this is bad for the doctor and bad for the student. I have twice this year been examined by my GP with students present, but each time the doctor asked if I objected — I said I was more than willing —and I found it very interesting and helpful to have the students examine me and discuss my symptoms, with the doctor acting as a referee in their conclusions. I see it as a contribution to medical education, but it does have to be managed properly.

  • 28 August 2017 at 11:01pm
    trishjw says:
    Too many people believed naively in 2016 that much of the garbage that Trump preached was merely political and that he'd turn to doing what "was right." if he became president. These same people were born in the wool Republican so they would never think of voting Democrat and/or they hated Clinton because she was female. US has a large number of males--esp. white ones--that refuse to be ruled or bossed by a female-whoever she is. Also a lot of both parties did not vote this last time around.(Not only did Clinton receive3.5M more votes but more than 5M did not vote at all.) Now they and we are paying for it with prejudicial Trump. He is the same now as he was in the 70's and 80's when he and his father were fined for not allowing blacks to live in their buildings. His demand that Obama was born in Kenya should have told many people that. Also, no one bothered to mention it other than retired generals that people born out of the country whose parent(s) is/are American citizen are also citizens. They happen to have dual citizenship. Therefore so would Obama. No one criticized McCain in 2008 when he was born in Panama. But that's why I don't listen to commentators on Fox News. They knew but never questioned Trump when he was pedaling that bunk.As of last Friday Trump lost/fired all his compadres for not toeing the line and criticizing him for his remarks about Charlottesville and No. Korea. Many of those neo-Nazis, KKK's and white supremicists came from other states. They were not all from No. Carolina. That doesn't justify their being; it just shows they are spread all over the 3000 miles in small groups and had to spend time and money to get to Charlottesville. The terrorist in the truck was from Ohio--about 250 miles away. His parents could not have done anything about his activity online--it's free speech and he's over 18. Google and Facebook etc blocking this horrid ranting may block some but it may backfire. We just have to see. The woman he killed was called strong by her mother. What else did you expect her to say about her actions?? She was stronger than many since she went to the protest and she chose her friends by their actions not by the color of their skin. That's more than most people in Charlottesville or just about any where else in the states. I have a feeling many would criticize her in Britain, Germany, China etc also.

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