President Trump was criticised for not immediately condemning white supremacy groups, after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville Virginia ended violently on Saturday, 12 August. Thirty-two-year-old rights activist, Heather Heyer was killed and 19 other people who were also peacefully protesting racism were injured in a car attack by James Fields, a suspected neo-Nazi supporter. Also, a police helicopter, responding to a melee that broke out which injured 15 people, crashed, killing two state troopers. 

Organisers of Saturday’s rally, called “Unite the Right”, set a chilling tone for the weekend with a torchlit march through the city of Charlottesville and the campus of the University of Virginia. Normally a staid and peaceful city, Charlottesville has attracted the attention of white supremacists from around the country over its planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The bronze statue commemorating the civil war general is a prominent feature in a park that had previously been called Lee Park, but has been re-named Emancipation Park. The protest was the fourth time, since May, that alt-right and Klu Klux Klan members have descended upon Charlottesville to use the removal of the statue as a pretext for their extremist views. Each time alt-right supporters have been met with counter-protestors and clashes between the groups have been growing in intensity. Michael Signer, Charlottesville’s mayor, has said that president Trump’s election campaign has helped to strengthen the extremist views that have caused these clashes.  

“Bigotry on many sides”

Some of the Alt-right protestors carried banners supporting President Trump and neo-Nazi groups have been among the few to praise Trump’s comments, interpreting his words as support for their views. Andrew Aglin, the editor of the alt-right website Daily Stormer was pleased to note that: “When reporters were screaming at him about White Nationalism he just walked out of the room.” Another commentator from that site employed the chief tactic that the alt-right and Fox news have been using to defend hate speech: blaming violence on Antifa, groups that are against fascism. 

When the president spoke of the incident on Saturday, he failed to criticise the white supremacists for shouting racial, misogynistic epithets, instead saying: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.” He followed this with the odd, off-topic statement: “No child should ever be afraid to go outside and play. Or be with their parents and have a good time.”  And then he said that he and Governor Terry McAuliffe had spoken by telephone and agreed that “the hate and division must stop. And it must stop right now.” 

Trump’s notion that “many sides” were involved is patently false, since initially demonstrators chanting hateful slogans were met by crowds comprised mainly of locals, like Heather Heyer, who were chanting “No hate, no fear.” African American clergy members marched into Emancipation Park after a sunrise service, peacefully showing their resistance to the neo-Nazi demonstration. Just before noon, a segment of protestors began brawling in the streets, throwing mace and beating each other with fists, flagpoles and clubs. Local police were overwhelmed by the size and intensity of the crowd and two Virginia state troopers who were responding to the protest were dispatched and then killed when their helicopter crashed. Almost simultaneously, the 20-year-old driver who had been protesting with the neo-Nazis used his car as a weapon against a group of peaceful counter demonstrators. 

At a press conference the following day, Jason Kessler, a local man who was one of the organisers of the rally tried to blame the local police for not preventing the violent clashes. The crowd furiously jeered him as he claimed that their anger was “the anti-white hate that fueled what happened” and chased him away before he concluded his comments. The riot police he had just criticised came to his aid, protecting him from the angry mob that accused him of murder and escorted him safely towards the police station. 

Lacking leadership

Republican Senator Cory Gardner said that Trump had previously called truck attacks on crowds in Europe “incidents of domestic terrorism” and called on the president to use the tragedy as an opportunity to condemn white nationalism. He encouraged the president go further than condemning bigotry, “to step up and name evil, in this case, white nationalism.” Trump has been very quick to condemn terror attacks that might involve Muslims perpetrators, using those incidents as evidence that his travel ban is necessary. He has been slow to condemn home grown white attackers, such as the Portland Oregon man who killed two men, who were trying to protect Muslim women, that he was verbally attacking. 

Unlike President Trump, Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe wasted no time making it clear which side he supported when he called a state of emergency and stopped the rally. His message to what was estimated to be the largest gathering of white supremacists in a decade was unequivocal as he told the hate groups to “Go home.”  Trump’s standing in the Republican party was shaken again as Republicans joined the Democrats reacting angrily to his weak response to the event. Senators Orrin Hatch and Cory Gardner made their first critical statements against Trump, suggesting that his administration may have less support for policies like his proposed tax reform when lawmakers return in September.

Bannon blamed

On Sunday, the White House hastily offered a stronger statement that the president had “of course” intended to criticise white supremacists and the Klu Klux Klan. Also on Sunday, Anthony Scaramucci, the former communications director gave his first interview since leaving his position after only 11 days. On the This Week programme, Scaramucci said that chief strategist Steve Bannon’s “nonsensical” influence over the president was responsible for his failure to make a strong statement against the alt-right. He said that Steve Bannon, the former chairman of the right-wing nationalist website Breitbart News, has a “Bannon-bart influence” that hurts the president because it keeps him from moving into the political mainstream. 

Trump has risen to power, in large part due to Bannon’s ability to amass a base of angry white supporters. It’s clear from his response to Charlottesville that Trump isn’t willing to risk losing this base, no matter how it behaves on his behalf. As former Klu Klux Klan leader, David Duke put it after Trump condemned the violence: “It was white Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”  On Saturday at the rally Duke had said, “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.”