This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
There was a time, in the distant era of 2015, when condemning nazis was a very low bar for an American politician to clear.
It was so low that candidates were almost never asked their view on the subject, as the default assumption was not only that the candidate rejected them–because they’re fucking nazis–but that nazis were not enough of a pertinent player in the 21st-century political field to merit inquiry. Racists, yes. White supremacists, maybe. But nazis? Swastika-bearing, sieg heil-ing, ethnic-cleansing nazis? Of course not. Of course not.
Today, that low bar is like a limbo pole under which our president cannot pass, having gorged himself on the worship of white supremacists waving tiki torches in a summer party from hell. To the surprise of no one who has followed Donald Trump’s career over the past 40 years–the 1973 lawsuit over anti-black discrimination, his persecution of the innocent Central Park Five, his birther crusade, the entire 2016 presidential campaign–the President backtracked on his bold “nazis are bad” stance from Monday to say, about the “Jews won’t replace us”-chanting far-righters, that there were “a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest . . . you had people that were very fine people.”
As for the counter-protesters, they were from “a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent,” according to our dear leader. One of those anti-racist protesters, Heather Heyer, was murdered by a white supremacist during an act of domestic terrorism that closely resembled the tactics of ISIS supporters in Europe. After falsely insinuating that Heyer’s mother had praised him, Trump castigated the activists who fought alongside her: “There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group . . . yes, I think there is blame on both sides.”
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Trump switched from blaming “many sides,” as he did on Saturday, to blaming “both sides.” He is right that there are two sides: the vestigial tail of the Confederacy and the United States of America; the white supremacists and their targets; the President and the patriots. It is also obvious he favors the side of the nazis. This has been evident since Trump launched his campaign. It became clearer when he hesitated to denounce David Duke in February 2016. It was blindingly obvious on Saturday in his initial reaction to Charlottesville.
That journalists and politicians spent two years grossly underestimating Trump’s racism has allowed it to flourish. A dog whistle became the tune of a pied piper, inspiring Caucasian partisans to parade their prejudices, and it became a bullhorn once Trump was safely ensconced as president. Despite pundit predictions, Trump never planned to pivot: His goal was always instead to pivot Americans to his sick views, to pull the fringes to the center and make extremism mainstream. He has to some degree succeeded; in 2016, racist ideology reentered not only American political discourse but seemingly the White House itself, in the form of Steve Bannon, Seb Gorka, and Stephen Miller.
Since Saturday, the calls for the resignation of these three advisors have intensified. More tepid is the call for the resignation of Confederacy buff Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General who seeks to strip non-white citizens of their rights. Under Sessions, the Justice Department has backed anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Muslim, and anti-voter rights initiatives, proving that this administration’s threat is not merely rhetorical. The white supremacist House runs the gamut from nascent nazis like Miller to respectability racists like Sessions, but they all should be taken down like the Confederate statues their side defends. There are many reasons for Trump to go down with them-–emoluments violations, obstruction of justice, high crimes and misdemeanors–-with his speech on Tuesday yet another indicator he is unfit to be president.
But who will take Trump on? On Saturday, the GOP placed blame squarely on the side of the neo-nazis and white supremacists and deemed the murder of Heyer an act of terrorism. On Tuesday, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and others tweeted once more against Trump’s racist rhetoric, but will they act? Trump’s speech showed his utter disregard for their critiques, wiping out whatever goodwill he accumulated during his disingenuous denunciation on Monday. As the legislative majority, it is up to the GOP to decide whether Trump represents a repugnant neo-Confederacy, or whether he represents them and the rest of the U.S.
For a normal president, Charlottesville and its aftermath would be a disaster. For Trump, it is a gift he gave himself. He has stoked and cultivated his racist base for years, and now they may provide what he craves most: an act of violence so severe he can use it as a pretext to strip away citizens’ rights. Trump has never hidden his hunger for riots, repeatedly deeming them a cleansing force. He has threatened to have “the Feds” invade cities like Chicago purely because of crime; his response to terrorist attacks, when not smug self-congratulation, has been demands for darker policies.
In other words, Trump may do what autocrats have always done: create or exploit a crisis in order to consolidate power. By framing Charlottesville as caused by two equally violent sides, Trump is developing a framework through which to crush opponents of racism, who also happen to be opponents of Trump. By showing he will protect his neo-nazi followers, he encourages them to riot again, as they will not be blamed by him. The blame would fall squarely on the anti-racist protesters, who Trump would claim provoked the violence (we can argue, if you wish, whether striking the nazis who descend upon your city is an act of violence or an act of self-defense). This propaganda would likely be aimed at his eroding base of moderate Republican supporters. This group has grown frustrated with Trump but–and this is important if you want to understand the power Trump has over them–highly value law and order.
This gross manipulation cannot stand. Trump’s neo-nazi adherents will likely continue their activity whether or not Trump is in office, though how emboldened they are may depend on who is in power. White supremacist groups have been on the rise for nearly a decade, but in the 21st century it is only under Trump that their activity is sanctioned by the executive branch, that their opponents are demonized from the presidential podium, and that their clashes may very well be used as pretext for a severe overhaul of civil liberties.
As he has done for two straight years, Trump is flaunting future plans and perverse prerogatives, daring you to be bleak enough to believe him. You should. The history of fascism speaks volumes–but so does Trump, in his own words.
Sarah Kendzior is a journalist and scholar of authoritarian states.