Charlottesville Was a Turning Point

But which way the nation is headed remains a fiercely contested question.

White supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, one waving a Confederate flag
Steve Helber / AP

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The weekend of August 12, 2017, may well have been a turning point in recent American history, but it’s not entirely clear which way things turned.

That weekend was when neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. Marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and employed other anti-Semitic slogans. There were multiple violent clashes, and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when James Alex Fields Jr., one of the marchers, drove his car into a crowd. And President Donald Trump infamously equivocated about the incident. Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” and then vacillated over the course of several days, declining to mount a sincere and forceful condemnation of the march.

By any objective standard, the incident was one of the lowest points of an administration defined by its nadirs, and the immediate reaction showed that public opinion concurred. Americans condemned Trump’s response, and his approval hit a record low.

Yet almost two years later, the political effects of the violence remain unpredictable, as the past week showed. Former Vice President Joe Biden looked to Charlottesville as a focus for his presidential-campaign announcement, and found it to be more slippery than he had intended. Trump, meanwhile, showed no squeamishness in defending himself over his response. And a shooting at a synagogue in suburban San Diego, California, showed how anti-Semitic attacks have become a horrifyingly familiar part of contemporary American life.

Biden decided to frame his campaign launch around a case against Trump. That’s somewhat in contrast to many other Democratic presidential candidates who, while not downplaying their moral revulsion to Trump, have tended to situate it as just one of a few issues. To sum up his case that Trump represents a “threat to this nation … unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden seized on Charlottesville, which occasioned one of his first major interventions in the national debate after the 2016 election. He reportedly planned a visit to Charlottesville at the start of his campaign, and he structured his announcement video around the march and words by Charlottesville’s most famous resident, Thomas Jefferson.

It didn’t go as smoothly as Biden must have imagined. Charlottesvillians, resentful at having their town turned into a symbol for white supremacy or a political prop, bridled at the plan. The video went forward, but without a visit, and Biden was criticized for not speaking with Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, before he released it. (Bro told The New York Times that she was not “traumatized” by the video.)

Despite the bruising reaction to Trump’s comments in August 2017, he didn’t shy away from discussing the issue on Friday, when reporters asked him about Biden’s announcement:

Reporter: Mr. President, do you still think there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville?

Trump: Oh, I’ve answered that question. And if you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly. And I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals.

I have spoken to many generals here, right at the White House, and many people thought—of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general. People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.

There’s a lot of nonsense in this answer. There is not a statue of Lee in downtown Charlottesville because of the cleverness of his military maneuvers, nor was there an effort to take the statue down because anyone was angry about his tactical choices at Gettysburg. Lee is controversial because he was a brutal slaveholder and the military leader of a treasonous rebellion against the United States government for the purpose of preserving black slavery.

An attempt by the Charlottesville city government to remove the statue was the excuse for white supremacists to march there in August 2017, but there’s not a direct connection between, say, supporting the preservation of historical monuments (to accept the most innocent explanation for opposing the statue’s removal) and anti-Semitism. Trump is, ironically, engaging in revisionist history: The backlash to his remarks came not because he supported leaving the statue of Lee intact; it was provoked by his inability to condemn the “Jews will not replace us” crowd without resorting to both-sidesism, complaining of an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”

It is true that many people who oppose removing Confederate statues are neither neo-Nazis nor white supremacists. It is also true that these were not the people marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville. As I noted at the time, Trump was speaking a double language. On the one hand, he was offering the barest condemnation of the neo-Nazis. On the other hand, the softness of his condemnation, and his insistence on claiming that there were good people, left white supremacists an opportunity to see in Trump an ally, and avoided alienating people in the president’s coalition who wouldn’t self-identify as white supremacists but who object strenuously to the removal of Confederate monuments.

Trump’s patterns of speech make a close reading of his comments a bit of a fool’s errand, but at the time, most Americans saw through his doublespeak. Since then, however, Trump and some of his defenders have insisted that he was merely misinterpreted, and that his comments were always about historic preservation. That’s what Trump attempted to claim on Friday. In any case, his embrace of the question shows that he’s not scared of the impact of his comments on his political standing. Of course, Trump will defend any number of things to the hilt, and has often been his own worst enemy politically.

But Trump is also making a rational political calculation. His defense of the marchers in Charlottesville had bad short-term political effects, in terms of his polling, and even bad medium-term effects: It’s likely part of the mix that powered Democrats to a big win in November 2018. But Trump’s popularity has rebounded (and sunk, and rebounded) since August 2017. By many indications, Trump has largely kept his base together, and he’s either a slight favorite or close to even in projections of the 2020 presidential race. The president has concluded that voter anger about Charlottesville is baked in, and he might be right. Or Biden might prove that he’s wrong. But as Biden’s stumbles around the topic show, Charlottesville doesn’t make for a simple tool to wield against Trump.

Meanwhile, the consequences of shrugging off anti-Semitic violence remain with the nation. On Saturday, a man walked into a synagogue in Poway, California, and opened fire, killing one woman and injuring three others, including the rabbi. Police say he was shouting anti-Semitic slurs, and he’s tentatively linked to a hate-filled manifesto posted online. It takes away nothing from the horror of the crime to say that it feels familiar, following not just the October 2018 massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh but also a rise in reports of anti-Semitic incidents overall. None of this felt nearly so normal before the march in Charlottesville. Something changed that weekend, but it’s premature to say what.