Today is the fourth anniversary of Unite the Right, the 2017 white supremacist rampage in Charlottesville. There are no big events planned in town. So I took a walk, alone, past the sites of the freshly removed statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Around 1:45 p.m., I headed to the spot where, at that time four years ago, a neo-Nazi deliberately plowed his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of anti-racist counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
It was horrendously hot. As I waited for the anniversary moment to arrive, I checked my phone’s weather app. It was 96 degrees, ten degrees above the historical average for August 12. The heat index was over 100. My phone also reminded me of the day’s local coronavirus case count—almost double the rate it was two weeks ago.
As you can see in the photo I took above, the area has become an informal monument, where people write messages of solidarity like: “WE’VE GOT TO CARRY EACH OTHER” and “FUCK WHITE SUPREMACY.” The most powerful, I thought, was written in big blue and green letters right on the corner of Water Street and what’s now known as Heather Heyer Way. It said: “LOVE + ACTION = CHANGE.”
That message stood in stark contrast to a newsletter I had read just before setting out, by Matt Yglesias. The economics blogger laid out his case for inaction on the most pressing issues of our time: the erosion of democracy, and climate change. Yglesias’ argument boils down to this: All societies have problems. We think our problems are “uniquely serious” because “we yearn for drama.” His conclusion: that these epochal problems can be solved with a few strategic policy changes, and that “everyone needs to chill out a bit.”
I’ll set aside the chutzpah it took for Yglesias to liken those of us who correctly called Donald Trump a fascist—as well as those of us who want future generations to avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate change—to boosters of the Iraq War. (Yglesias himself not only supported the Iraq War when it mattered but said we should go ahead and “take out” Iran and North Korea while we were at it.)
No, it goes deeper than that. Facing a memorial to a victim of white supremacy, on a sidewalk baked by an overheating climate, in the middle of a global pandemic, his words took on an air of pathetic farce. Heyer and her fellow anti-fascists and anti-racists who stood down the Nazis in Charlottesville four years ago weren’t doing so because they “yearned for drama.” They did so because they saw the clear threat facing not just a college town in Central Virginia but the country and world as a whole. Thanks to the election of Donald Trump, organized white supremacy was on the rise. Richard Spencer, one of the rally’s principal organizers, was at the time the subject of constant media profiles and was a frequent guest at the Trump International Hotel.
The Nazis’ goal was not just to prevent the removal of Charlottesville’s Confederate statues. Charlottesville was to be a test case—a proving ground to show that armed, flag-waving, “blood and soil” chanting white supremacists could take the streets of a liberal American city and occupy them unopposed. As the lawyers suing the rally’s organizers are expected to argue in federal court this fall, had Charlottesville been a success for them, the organizers planned to bring their fascist roadshow to other and bigger cities.
Their ultimate goal was, just as the event’s name said: to unite the right. A show of strength would have helped them merge their overtly racist politics with the more muted dominant streams of American conservatism. That was why, in addition to Norse runes and Confederate flags, the white supremacists chanted Trump’s name and wore MAGA hats. The prospect that they might have succeeded was almost certainly why Trump returned the favor: withholding his condemnation of the white supremacist groups for two days after the attack, only to reverse himself and proclaim that among the white supremacists there had been some “very fine people.”
That the 2017 rampage is remembered today not as the opening salvo in a nationwide fascist takeover but the high-water mark of the doofusy “alt-right” is due almost entirely to the resistance and sacrifices of a small number of activists and community members, above all Heather Heyer. (It is a mark of the Nazis’ incredible failure that most on the right spent the next few years not trying to ride the Charlottesville wave but doing everything possible to distance their president from the fallout.)
Had the counterprotesters taken Yglesias’ advice—focused on how other societies had faced similar threats in the past, “chilled out a bit”—the Nazis would have likely trampled over Charlottesville unopposed, and from there—who knows. They might have been back in town today, in bigger numbers, for an anniversary celebration.
But the trauma of August 11 and 12, 2017, was not the end of the story. As Joe Lowndes detailed recently in an excellent article for the New Republic, “out of these ashes, a different political vision for the far right would coalesce—one that would reject white supremacy as an ideology and seek out the more generative ground of American nationalism as an alternative.” Richard Spencer and the Norse-rune flag set were ultimately pushed aside in favor of the more multiethnic, yet still adamantly “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys and militia movements.
While James Alex Fields, Jr.—the Ohio man who ran down Heather Heyer—was abandoned by the movement and left to spend the rest of his life in prison, Kyle Rittenhouse—another out-of-state vigilante who murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters and shot a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin—has been embraced by the Republican mainstream. Rittenhouse was deemed more acceptable, even to some liberal onlookers, because, as Lowndes wrote, he “blurred the distinction between racial nationalism and civic nationalism by claiming to act not as a white supremacist but rather as a defender of people and property.”
Straight lines can be drawn from Unite the Right to the anti-lockdown protests, anti-BLM vigilantism in 2020, and finally to the Capitol putsch on January 6—an attack in which some of the same fascists who had been in Charlottesville in 2017 took part. But the transformation and deepening of the messages of the Summer of Hate goes even deeper than that. Just yesterday, on the anniversary of the Nazi’s tiki-torch march on the University of Virginia lawn, Tucker Carlson regaled his viewers with an updated version of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. That is the very notion the torch-carrying white supremacists were referring to when they chanted “Jews will not replace us!” four years ago.
The fact that some of us, or our forebearers, or people elsewhere, have weathered crises before is the opposite of an argument for complacency. Some of those victories—like the defeat of global fascism in the 1940s, or the surmounting of Jim Crow—came only through concerted organizing and dogged fighting, and at the cost of many lives. Other close calls—like humanity’s narrow escape from thermonuclear destruction in the Cold War—were destructive enough as they were. If we had listened to some of the most radical-seeming voices from back then who called for disarmament, decolonization, de-corporatization, and an end to reliance on oil, the climate crisis (and my God, it is a crisis), might not be so dire today.
In any case, I for one am grateful that there is, today at least, a relative absence of drama in my adopted town. Thinking tonight of everyone who made that possible.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire (coming Jan. 18). On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
(All photos taken Aug. 12, 2021, by the author.)