Over the weekend, the pressure against the governor only intensified. Shortly after Northam dug in his heels, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus renewed its calls for his resignation, and the chorus of national Democrats wanting him to leave office swelled. Northam’s immediate predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, called for his resignation. Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Northam should he resign, issued a strong statement, saying Virginians “cannot condone the actions from his past, that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation.” Northam’s days as governor could be numbered.
His denials and admissions on Saturday came as he insisted he would stay in office. The main effect of Northam’s statements over the weekend has not been to clarify anything but to obfuscate, to create an epistemological thicket of uncertainty around a yearbook photo whose meaning seems otherwise obvious. Yet in Virginia, a state that’s currently the center of gravity of the struggle over the future of white supremacy in America, it was never the particulars that mattered.
Virginia maintains a special place in the national mythology, in the history of white supremacy, and thus, in the ongoing debate about white supremacy’s place in the nation’s present. Over the past few years, black activism, the whispers of anti-racist policy making, and the rising political power of people of color prompted a backlash, the ascendance of the alt-right, and a brand of open bigotry embodied by Trumpism. Those tensions amplified a running debate in the South over the meaning of Confederate monuments erected to sustain white supremacy—nowhere more so than in Virginia, where Robert E. Lee’s bones are interred and where Jefferson Davis still finds his name on highways.
In the summer of 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville put a spark to kindling. Klansmen and neo-Nazis descended upon the college town and marched, armed, through the streets. The conflagration ended with James Alex Fields driving his car through a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer.
Amanda Mull: Ralph Northam’s yearbook page speaks for itself
Northam was on the campaign trail at the time. In fact, the political backdrop of the rallies in Charlottesville wasn’t just President Donald Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy or a national dialogue over the fate of Confederate statues, but the looming Virginia election in the fall of 2017, in which two dramatically different visions of the future of the state were in play.
On the one hand, Corey Stewart launched a deadly serious campaign for the GOP’s nomination steeped in neo-Confederate nostalgia. Stewart succeeded in making the eventual Republican nominee Ed Gillespie—who ran fearmongering ads about black people convicted of felonies voting and the threat posed by the MS-13 gang—look racially moderate by comparison. Both Gillespie and Stewart opposed the removal of Confederate statues and iconography. Northam himself originally demurred on the issue during the campaign, saying each removal should be a local issue. But after Heyer’s death and after then-Governor McAuliffe came out in favor of removing the statues, Northam pledged to be “a vocal advocate” for their removal.