After the Holocaust, neo-Nazi movements were largely consigned to the country’s political fringe, although they never fully left the American landscape. In 1978, for example, a Nazi group pushed to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois, deliberately selecting an area densely populated by Holocaust survivors. The proposed march caused a national uproar, and the American Civil Liberties Union famously defended the group’s First Amendment rights in court. Eventually, they ended up demonstrating in Chicago.
The Charlottesville demonstration differed from the planned Skokie march in two important respects, Nirenberg said. First of all, there’s a political context for the “Unite the Right” demonstration. It fits into debates over free speech and college campuses as the front lines of cultural battle, he said. The Skokie march was also widely and vigorously condemned by political leaders. “That strong, clear commitment to certain values of inclusion from our political leaders is not present in the same way,” Nirenberg said.
On Monday, President Donald Trump held a press conference about the violence in Charlottesville. “Racism is evil,” he said. “Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” This statement came two days after his initial comments on the protests, in which he condemned the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” The suggested equivalence between the white-supremacist demonstrators and their counter-protesters shocked politicians and public figures in both parties, who quickly criticized Trump’s unwillingness to condemn neo-Nazis and the KKK. “It’s very clear that the people marching in Charlottesville felt very supported by the shape of the public statements made by President Trump,” said Nirenberg. On Tuesday, the president held another press conference in which he reiterated his previous claims, saying, “What about the alt-left that came charging … with clubs in their hands? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
Greenblatt argued that the backlash against Trump’s comments is not about politics—it’s about recognizing a pattern of anti-Semitism. There was the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn’t mention Jews; the conspiratorial meme of Hillary Clinton and a Star of David that Trump retweeted during the campaign; the infamous Nazi salute and shouts of “Hail Trump!” at an alt-right conference following the election. In the past several days, a number of groups have renewed their calls for Trump to fire Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, in part based on Bannon’s role in heading Breitbart, which he called a “platform for the alt-right.”
To people like Greenblatt, these are all signs that, at best, the White House does not take anti-Semitism seriously enough. At worst, the Trump administration indulges bigotry so as not to alienate some supporters. “Heck, there’s Jewish grandchildren running around the White House,” Greenblatt said. “But make no mistake, the extreme right considers many people their threat, but it always, always, always comes back to the Jews.”