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The violence in Virginia shows that the nation is gripped by a deep malaise – and is writhing under its disastrous effects
Carol Anderson is the author of White Rage
The United States is in a tailspin. White supremacists are on the march – and have left a trail of blood and destruction in their wake. A march in Charlottesville, Virginia, filled with torches, Nazi flags and chants of “White Lives Matter” culminated in violence that claimed at least one life, and left many more injured.
This is just what many feared the Trump presidency would unleash. David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, supported that view when he said on Saturday that the march “fulfills the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back”.
The president was slow to disabuse people of that view. When the nation turned to the president on Friday to condemn the unrest provoked by the “Unite the Right” far-right rally, he instead blamed “many sides”. In other words: he lumped together anti-racist protesters with white supremacists.
This is just what many feared the Trump presidency would unleash
It took more than 36 hours – and a killing believed to have been carried out by a neo-Nazi – for the White House to denounce white supremacists. Although the president prefers to communicate directly with the American people through Twitter, he didn’t do that this time. Instead, the delayed statement was attributed to an unnamed White House spokesperson.
None of this makes sense. Unless, that is, we come to grips with the reality that we are seeing the effects of far too many Americans strung out on the most pervasive, devastating, reality-warping drug to ever hit the United States: white supremacy.
Like all forms of substance abuse, it has destroyed families and communities and put enormous strains on governmental institutions. It has made millions of Americans forsake their God and jettison their patriotism just to get a taste.
High on its effects, its users feel powerful, heady, even as they and everything around them disintegrates. And, as with most drug crises, while not everyone may be strung out, everyone is very surely affected.
In 2017, millions of Americans are hooked on this drug. As clearly as track marks in the arms, the most visible signs are all around us.
The “Heil Trump” salutes at a gathering of white nationalists shortly before the inauguration. A uptick in reported hate crimes across the country. The killing of Lt Richard Collins by a white supremacist in Maryland. The double homicide and severe wounding of Good Samaritans defending teen girls in Portland from another emboldened white supremacist. The nooses found at and near the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
There are other signs, too – signs that this addiction is always lurking, demanding to be fed. The 2016 election brought that into stark relief as voters flocked to Donald Trump, despite his explicit racism or, just as important, because of it. His birther harangues lent him a stature among hardcore supporters that no other candidate could match.
Trump was the antithesis of Barack Obama, and therefore, in the Gregor Samsa world of white supremacy, the most attractive candidate. Yet, odious as he may be to many, Trump is, in fact, only a symptom.
All of his racist rants would have dropped him on the outskirts of the lunatic fringe if it hadn’t been for the way that a major political party had spent decades making white supremacy the Republican party’s drug of choice.
The Republicans, of course, believed that they could control it. Getting a little taste every now and then, the party would swear that it wasn’t hooked, but, inevitably it needed an even more powerful strain each time to feel that high.
In 1968, Richard Nixon dabbled in it when he ran for office on the Southern Strategy, which promised a curtailment of black civil rights in order to woo disaffected white Americans from the Democratic party into the Republican party. And the disaffection ran deep.
White supremacy is the Republican party’s drug of choice
No Democrat running for president has won the majority of white voters since Lyndon Johnson legally acknowledged that African Americans were actually US citizens. But if Nixon was like a weekend user binging on “law and order” between detoxes on affirmative action in government contracts, subsequent Republican presidential candidates have bowed down to the drug supreme: there was Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen”, George HW Bush’s “Willie Horton”, Mitt Romney’s “47%”.
With white supremacy’s current grip on the Republican party, everything the addict once valued has become expendable. Gone from power are moderate Republicans who believed in limited government, fiscal restraint and civil rights. Gone, as well, is the clout of the national security hawks, who put American sovereignty, might, and global leadership first.
Alliances with Nato and Europe now hang by a thread as global white nationalist movements, backed by Trump’s benefactor Vladimir Putin, have worked to undermine democracy in Britain, France and Germany.
Domestically, the picture is just as deranged. The Republican’s flag-waving base and congressional leadership have supported Trump’s denigration of the CIA and humiliation of the FBI. Like a God-fearing suburban soccer mom turning tricks to feed the habit, the symbols of patriotism and love of country have been no match for the addiction.
As long as Trump gives the white supremacists one more Ice raid, one more deportation, one more Muslim travel ban, one more hunt for “illegal voters” in a sanctuary city, the craving is temporarily satisfied. And as with any addict, anything that gets in between the user and the drug has to go.
Republican congressional leaders fully understand. Trump, the pusher with a bad Russian habit, has become a way for the base to mainline. And because their very survival is tied up with feeding their constituency’s constant need for a fix, Republicans, acting like rogue cops straight out of Serpico, have made the decision to protect the pusher, bury his misdeeds, and attack his accusers.
In June 2016, Paul Ryan swore his caucus to secrecy when a meeting with a Ukrainian official led one congressman to conclude that “I think Putin pays ... Trump. Swear to God.”
Odious as he may be to many, Trump is, in fact, only a symptom
In October 2016, Mitch McConnell threatened Obama if the president announced that 17 intelligence agencies had evidence of Russian interference in the election. In March 2017, the congressman Devin Nunes sabotaged his own committee’s hearings to protect Trump.
In May 2017, Senator Ted Cruz went after former the deputy attorney general Sally Yates because she had the audacity to issue a warning that Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser, was subject to blackmail by the Kremlin. In June 2017, the fired FBI director James Comey came into the Republican party’s crosshairs, and many believe special prosecutor Robert Mueller is next.
Republicans have convinced themselves, as addicts do, that they’re still in charge, that they’re getting out of this what they’ve always wanted – tax cuts for the rich, eventual destruction of the Affordable Care Act, a supreme court that will overturn Roe v Wade, and decisively fewer regulations on private industry – but none of these, if they were truly sober and in their right minds, are worth destroying the United States for.
Yet, here we are. We’re not all addicted, but we’re surely enduring the consequences.
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor and chair of African American studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage.