The congregation applauded.
“I thought it was on point,” Zan Allen, another member of the Mt. Zion congregation, told me afterward. Allen was especially gratified that the governor and the lieutenant governor with him had gone out of their way to put a name to the particular strain of hatred on display in the streets of Charlottesville. “This is not about politics,” the governor had said—except that, he added, it is very much about politics in the sense that “political rhetoric in this country today is breeding bigotry and hatred.” He had been echoing his lieutenant governor’s words: We “will not and do not condone white supremacy,” Ralph Northam had declared to the congregation. Each line was met with loud applause.
Allen didn’t see McAuliffe’s speech as overly political; nor did he see McAuliffe’s or his fellow politicians’ swift and vocal reaction to the events the way many national pundits have interpreted them: as self-interested or cynical. Instead, Allen said, the politicians “saw a community in need.” They simply responded to that need.
And, perhaps most importantly: They responded by accurately describing the events that caused the need in the first place. President Trump initially refused to call the torch-wielding protesters who descended on Charlottesville what they are: white supremacists. (On Sunday afternoon, the White House used that language, some 36 hours after the protests began—but it did so in an email sent to reporters in the president’s traveling press pool. The concession was attributed not to the president himself, but rather an unnamed spokesperson.)
In response to the unrest, in other words, the president rejected an opportunity to embrace that most foundational action of a leader in a democracy: to describe reality as it is. To lead through language—language that is shared, language that can spark conversation, language that allows for shared norms, if not shared politics. As Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out, Trump was “presented with the chance to denounce, in plain, direct language, individuals who could fairly be described as ‘white supremacist terrorists,’ or with some other equivalent formulation.” The president, instead, “resorted to euphemism and moral equivalence.”
In that way, because of the actions and inactions of the American president, the violence in Charlottesville came to represent another kind of failure: of facts. Of truths. Of democracy as a participatory project. If the president of the United States won’t personally condemn white supremacists, who will?
One answer—an answer both hopeful and unsettling—suggested itself as Terry McAuliffe and his fellow leaders spoke at the Mt. Zion church on Sunday morning. Here were local politicians and state politicians engaged in the psychic leadership that has traditionally been the province of the president. They were not President Obama in Charleston. They were, however, telling truths that the current president, in these crucial hours, has refused to tell. Jimmy Jackson, 69, who was born and raised in Charlottesville and sang in the choir during Sunday’s service, found himself gratified in particular by that simple gesture of respect the politicians offered: their willingness to give white supremacy a name. “Until it’s called what it is, just like the governor said, it’s going to continue,” Jackson told me.