The turnout of a white supremacist rally in Washington was low, however, they have become emboldened in the new America being created under Trump with dangerous consequences.
In the United States, politics is civil war by other means, and the systems the country uses to keep the spectre of civil conflict at bay are breaking down. Much of the fault for this breakdown lies at the feet of the president, Donald Trump, who wilfully energises people who reject the idea that human beings deserve equal rights.
Then there’s the internet itself, the unseen but ever-present villain that aids the spread of the president’s words in a way that bypasses the press entirely, and is fed straight to his fanatical supporters.
Evidence of America’s collapse came to Washington, DC on Sunday August 12, when hundreds of counter-protesters turned out to reject a message of hate brought by a handful of white supremacists, marking the one year anniversary of another rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist killed an anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, and injured several others.
There was an element of farce to the whole day. Though the white supremacist organisers had called for 400 marchers, only a few showed up. When they did, local police flanked them on all sides as journalists and counter-protesters followed them through the blocked off streets, snapping photos or hurling insults. They made their way to Lafayette Park, across from the White House itself, as antifascists and journalists huddled outside, separated by a line of local cops whose main job that day was to ensure the physical security of the provocative group.
Nick Wood, a former Marine, came out on Sunday to defy the white supremacist marchers, bringing with him a large baton and a shirt that read Black Lives Matter. Wood, who is black, said that while most of the white supremacists are unskilled at hand-to-hand combat, there are a few who are veterans like himself, and “know how to hurt people.”
“I have a lot of theories as to why we’re back here. The Civil War was white people fighting white people over whether to oppress black people and in a lot of cases where people were enslaved they rose up and killed their own masters, and that’s not what happened here. So what we got is the people who want to be the slave owners again, and then on the other side you’ve got people who say you owe us for that one time we freed you from slavery,” Wood said.
In other words, the conclusion of the Civil War, which ended with the military defeat of the Confederate rebels, was only a half measure, and did not achieve liberation from the institutions of white supremacy itself.
“You could argue many ways about how the constitution protects these kinds of a**holes because it was founded by a bunch of slave owners and on the bones of slaves, but the ideals we claim to represent are a country of diversity. They don’t want that; they want to squeeze us down to a single ethnicity. They want to suppress the rights of women of any one who is not a white man. And sorry, I’m not leaving,” Wood continued, waiting with hundreds of other journalists and counter-protesters outside a DC metro station where the Unite the Right marchers were set to arrive.
Washington DC, for its part, is a city whose population is half African-American, and many of the counter-protesters were young black people outraged that racists would dare darken their streets.
“When you talk about free speech,” Wood added, “you should be able to say whatever you want, fine, and the government shouldn’t be able to persecute you, but that doesn’t mean that if you come into a city full of black people and say 'black people should die' ... that black people aren’t going to punch you in the face. Hopefully the punching in the face won’t happen, but hope for the best, prepare for the worst."
The counter-protesters’ effort to “de-platform” the Unite the Right 2 rally was successful, more or less, by showing up with far more people than the dozen or so opponents, who sought to exercise their right to free speech and assembly outside the White House.
By law, Americans have the right to espouse offensive or racist views, and police were on hand on Sunday to protect their right to do so. But there are some categories of speech that deserve to be shouted down or forcefully opposed, because what those speakers advocate negates the existence of others' speech and rights.
To put it another way, a free society should no more tolerate racist rhetoric in public life than a healthy human mind should entertain thoughts of suicide. The source of the crisis in America is an existential one, to be or not to be, and the man who occupies the White House as president, Donald Trump, has shown he doesn’t see a difference between the two choices. Like nihilistic Internet trolls, Trump and his ilk are urging America to kill itself.
Nick Pizza, 19, who is white, came to DC with his girlfriend Curabel Scott, 19, who is black, to stand up to the white supremacists. Both are from Hackensack, New Jersey, outside of New York City.
A slight young man, Pizza said that he’s watched his own friends turn from libertarians to outright racists after being radicalised by internet memes that encourage people to believe in delusions of invasion by dangerous, foreign hordes.
“They’re very interested in the use of memes to create narratives that they can spread, even if it’s not true, to debate their points,” Pizza said.
Those memes are disturbingly simple, Pizza said. “Immigrants are invading the country, social justice warriors and liberals are taking over college campuses, and George Soros and all these people are funding these things. If you ask any of these neo-Nazis they have the exact same script and it really is self-reinforcing of a central propagandistic idea. YouTube will feed you Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson videos and then you can get into the Daily Stormer, and once you get into the Daily Stormer you’re a Nazi now. And I’ve seen friends of mine say 'I’m a capitalistic libertarian' and then all of a sudden they’re a ‘white identitarian.’”
Pizza was at Charlottesville last year. He said he came to DC for closure.
“It was hell. It was a riot. It was a big reality check for what I thought America was. And I learned at that moment that there were two Americas and I had lived in one my entire life,” Pizza added.
Scott echoed Pizza’s point.
“I just believe personally that this is the making of history and we should all be a part of it, when everything seems to be happening all at once, and we have to be a part of it,” she said. “We were raised in a very multicultural area, so when you get hit by this extremism by the opposite side that’s not what we were raised in.”
Pizza and Scott, born just before the September 11 attacks and only toddlers during the Iraq War, were shocked by the transformation of the country. As for me, at 33, I’m less surprised. Responsibility for the rise of the racist far right, and Trump, in the United States falls on the neoconservative architects of the Iraq War, a bloody and pointless conflict the US lost.
The kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric Trump has used since he began running for office finds fertile soil in the minds of people whose first encounter with Muslims was as an enemy in a foreign war. The arrogance of the George W Bush administration in invading Iraq wasn’t just in imagining the US army would be “greeted as liberators,” but in thinking that endless war wouldn’t have a negative effect on American society itself.
But it’s not clear that Republicans understand Trump is a creature of their own creation. On Monday, Sean Spicer, Trump’s former press secretary, gave a talk at the National Press Club promoting his new book "The Briefing." At the event, Spicer fielded expressed dismay at how divided the country is, but seemed wilfully ignorant of why people express such opposition to Trump and his white supremacist fans.
“Try wearing a Trump shirt on the Metro and see how long you last,” Spicer quipped. But a Trump shirt isn’t just a Trump shirt, it’s a flag of defiance against equality. And expecting the press to cover both sides equally is like expecting a psychologist to tell a patient there’s no difference between self-destruction and not self-destruction.
I asked him after the event what he thought of censorship, a hot topic now that social media sites are more actively policing racist and conspiratorial pages. He offered a candid answer, one that might have sufficed in simpler times.
“I’m not a big fan of censorship,” Spicer said. “I think we go down a very slippery slope when we start to censor people.”