Much was expected from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe when he stepped to the podium in Charlottesville on Sunday. The governor, whose previous roles include chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign, held a press conference to respond to the deadly violence that descended on Charlottesville over the weekend. During his address, McAuliffe confirmed the deaths of three people—H. Jay Cullen and Berke M. M. Bates, two state troopers monitoring the scene in a helicopter, as well as Heather Heyer, a counterprotester who was mowed down by a vehicle allegedly driven by James Fields, Jr., who reportedly consorted with white supremacists and their ideas.
But then McAuliffe failed to clear a stumbling block when he told white supremacists and neo-Nazis to go home. “You pretend that you are patriots,” he said. “You want to talk about patriots? Talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who brought our country together.” And in invoking one president who repeatedly raped his wife’s enslaved half-sister, and another who conscripted relatives and federal employees to re-enslave a Black woman, Virginia’s governor demonstrated why the current political and media class not only lack the necessary answers, they fundamentally misunderstand the question.
Many criticized President Trump for his hastily arranged press conference on Saturday, in which he refused to name and condemn white supremacists, and proceeded to cast the blame for the violence “on many sides.” He was again criticized for a speech on Monday, wherein he did condemn “criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups,” but only did so after a day of being roundly lambasted by everyone left of, well, the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. It was indeed a high-water mark in the tidal wave of political cowardice that has defined his first year in office. But there isn’t much to be expected of a president who not only courts white nationalists, but employs them within his administration. Condemnation of white supremacist violence rings hollow when it comes from a man who told police officers not to worry about injuring suspects during arrest, encouraged his supporters to violently remove protesters from a campaign rally, and once took out an advertisement in the New York Times to call for the execution of five Black boys who later turned out to be innocent of the crimes for which they were charged.
Trump has deliberately carved out a space in the modern iteration of Know-Nothingism that has polarized a new generation of lonely and aggrieved white men. On the other hand, McAuliffe—as well as his peers in the centrist wing of the Democratic Party—have failed to stamp out white supremacist ideology, in part because properly addressing it would condemn the constituency of white centrists who themselves benefit from a society rooted in white supremacy. What else to make of his praise of state and local law enforcement, who not only met the Unite the Right’s armed militia-like presence with passive observance, but were nowhere to be found as Black counter-protester Deandre Harris was beaten bloody with poles by white men in a parking garage literally right next to the police station?
How else to parse his boast that zero shots were fired and zero property was damaged, after finding out three were killed and dozens injured when they were run down in the street like dogs? And what is anyone to make of the juxtaposition between police whisking Jason Kessler, the “pro-white” organizer of Saturday’s white supremacist rally, to safety, while Black Lives Matter organizers have consistently been tear-gassed and arrested while peacefully marching in support of brothers and sisters killed by police violence?
On the Friday night before the rally, a prayer service was held at St. Paul’s Memorial, an Episcopal church located at the University of Virginia. Within its halls, faith leaders, academics, and activists gathered in solidarity for a response to white supremacists that planned to march on Charlottesville the next morning. Outside the church doors, dozens of white men gathered in solidarity to surround and intimidate the congregants. Echoing the Klan rallies of a previous century, they carried torches, shouted white power slogans, and assaulted the outnumbered students who stood bravely in counter-protest.
The intimidation, the protest, the violence, the death—all of these are ugly to behold. McAuliffe’s words (and to the extent he managed, President Trump’s as well) were meant to establish what happened in Charlottesville as outside the norms. Many voices from across the political spectrum have sought to establish that “This is not America.” But what happened in Charlottesville is all of a piece with America’s own ugly history.
Charlottesville has been described as “quaint” and “picturesque” in the aftermath of this weekend’s clash, but its soil has long been stained with the bloody legacy of slavery. The University of Virginia, the site of the rally, was itself built in part by the enslaved. Thomas Jefferson himself helped found the university, and local slaveholders earned a handsome profit in leasing the Black bodies they held in bondage to the school’s construction. Walk 15 minutes east of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, and you will find yourself at the First Baptist Church, whose congregation was established in 1864. At the time, Black church congregations were legally barred from organizing without white leadership, a rule tracing back to the slave state backlash against Denmark Vesey’s rebellion.
Walk anywhere within Charlottesville proper, and you will find yourself within Virginia’s 5th congressional district, first represented by President James Madison, a slaveholder who would go on to become the fourth President of the United States. Less than a century after Madison held the seat, the 5th District was represented by Thomas Bocock, who not only resigned to become a Confederate congressman, but re-emerged after the Civil War to become one of the architects of the Jim Crow laws that segregated the South. When the Supreme Court of the United States struck down school segregation, Charlottesville was one of the many cities in Virginia which opted to close their white schools, rather than allow a single negro to enter their halls. White supremacy has not only been welcomed throughout Charlottesville’s history, it is bound within the city’s DNA. And yet, the belief somehow prevails among the sensible political class that “This is not America.”
When Gov. McAuliffe, a banker and real estate developer hailing from New York, says “you are not welcome here” to a group of white supremacists rallying to the call of a blogger—who, by the way, lives in Charlottesville—and then extols the patriotism of men who have unquestionably enslaved and raped other human beings, he is not equipped to have the conversation. When McAuliffe makes note of whether shots were fired or windows were broken, after white-supremacist violence sent dozens of people to the hospital and one person to the morgue, his moral compass is improperly calibrated for judgment. But all of this is commensurate with a country whose politics are dependent on presenting history as a series of disconnected snapshots, rather than reconciling its past evils to present injustices.
McAuliffe does not shoulder the blame on his own; all he managed to do is confirm there’s no help coming from on high. At least for now, those on the wrong side of the colour line are on their own. White America, less dedicated to reconciling its history than denying its legacy, offers little hope that what happened in Charlottesville won’t happen again.