Standing next to David Duke and Richard Spencer last August in Charlottesville, I couldn’t imagine what America would look like a year later. I was surrounded by neo-Nazis and alt-right activists shouting anti-Semitic slurs—at least one with a large swastika tattooed on his back. As news broke of the horrific car attack against counter-protestors, it was clear to me, as it was to other reporters covering Charlottesville, that America must grapple with its racist and anti-Semitic margins. The controversy over President Donald Trump’s response to the events, in which he put equal blame on the Nazis and those who protested them, added further fuel to the fire.
A year later, as Washington, DC braces for a tense weekend with alt-right protesters vowing to stage their Unite the Right 2 rally and with counter-protestors gearing up for a forceful response, it is worth taking a look at what has changed in the year since Charlottesville—and how the events, which had etched onto the soul of Jewish America, made a mark on the political scene.
Is the alt-right stronger?
The short and comforting answer is no.
Backlash from the Charlottesville events, including the physical threat posed to alt-right protestors and a successful campaign of public shaming that cost some of the protestors their jobs, has had a chilling effect on members of this loosely organized movement that includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, two organizations that follow extremism closely, have noticed that the alt-right was unable to use Charlottesville to consolidate power and gain more prominence. In some cases, leaders of extremist groups called on their supporters to lay low and avoid further confrontation, noting the negative impact of high-profile events like Charlottesville. A Chicago rally scheduled for the week after Charlottesville brought out only a couple of dozen white supremacists, and an attempt in October to reconvene at the foot of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville ended with no more than a handful of protestors showing up in the middle of the night and rushing out minutes later.
But not all news is good. While unsuccessful in turning Charlottesville into their tipping point, white supremacists have significantly increased their presence on college campuses and have launched a propaganda campaign on highway overpasses. Additionally, the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, a gay Jewish freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, over winter break in California by a member of a pro-Nazi group known as the Atomwaffen Division, also highlighted the fact that violent extremists of the worst kind are still around and actively winning over members.
Has Trump paid a political price for his response to Charlottesville?
Flanked by some of his advisers cabinet members (two of whom are Jewish), Trump shocked the nation on August 16, saying that “both sides” were to blame for what happened in Charlottesville. The idea of moral equivalency between Nazis and those who came out to stop them rattled the Jewish community, with ripples reaching even Jewish Republicans, who had otherwise chosen not to criticize Trump. The Republican Jewish Coalition called out Trump for his response, stating the need for “greater moral clarity” from the president. Others also expressed their discomfort with Trump’s response. But Trump did not suffer any long-term repercussion from his Jewish supporters. Most were more than wiling to move on, focus on his positions regarding Israel and the Middle East and view Charlottesville as a one-time episode. Trump’s former economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who stood next to Trump when he made the comments, later said he had drafted a resignation letter after hearing Trump’s words. But he never handed it to the president.
Did Jewish Democrats cash in on Trump’s response?
Charlottesville still comes up often in Jewish Democratic conversations. Trump’s detractors in the Jewish community have touted the idea of his insensitivity to Jewish concerns early on in his campaign. His refusal to denounce white supremacists, the association with Steve Bannon who gave voice to the alt-right at Breitbart News, and the famous Hillary Clinton-Star of David-dollar bills campaign ad all fit into what Democrats viewed as a pattern of disrespect to Jewish fears of anti-Semitism. But it was his response to Charlottesville, which blatantly ignored the Jewish community’s history of anxiety and persecution, that helped Democrats make the case that Trump does, indeed, have a Jewish problem.
As far as votes are concerned, however, this will hardly make a difference. The majority of Jews dislike Trump for countless other reasons and will not vote for him regardless of his response to an anti-Semitic rally. And for those who do support Trump, Charlottesville was no more than a bump in the road, an unpleasant moment that is now in the past.
How are there still Nazis in American politics?
In a few months, after the Charlottesville anniversary is long forgotten, Americans will go to the ballots for the midterm elections. They will find a handful of Charlottesville-inspired candidates. From Illinois Republican candidate Arthur Jones (who is an avowed Nazi) to a California Holocaust denier and a Wisconsin alt-right activist, extremists don’t seem to be shy when running for public office.
Truth be told, these extremists and their likes have always been part of the American political system and have popped up in every election cycle. But in a post-Charlottesville environment, one might have expected them to sit out at least this election cycle. This did not happen; however, it is noteworthy that Republicans across the country have largely denounced these candidates and made a point of having their voices heard publicly on the issue.
Will the Washington, DC rally be any different?
Early guidance provided by organizers of the rally, which is titled Unite the Right 2, and by groups behind the mobilization of counter-protesters, indicates that both sides have drawn lessons from last year’s events, at least on the tactical level. For the coalition of alt-right, KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, there seems to be a post-Charlottesville understanding that they’re about to face resistance and societal repercussions. “REMEMBER: There is no expectation of privacy. Antifa, the media and law enforcement know everything that we do. Don’t let that rattle you,” organizers warned. Counter-protesters have also learned some important lessons and are planning for a massive yet non-violent rally, seeking to avoid direct confrontation of the kind that fueled the misguided claims of equal responsibility after Charlottesville. “Confrontation that leads to media attention only plays into the hands of extremist groups,” noted the Anti-Defamation League in an advisory it published August 7.
The Washington, DC protest is likely to be peaceful, or at least as peaceful as a march of neo-Nazis and white supremacists through the nation’s capital can be.
A year after Charlottesville, America’s response to the events is a mixed bag: acutely aware of the danger posed by the racist margins of society, yet also surprisingly forgiving of the politicians who enabled their presence.