Smoke dissolving into a night sky. Bright light from torches reflected on faces. Those faces stretched into snarls. The images out of Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday and Saturday are unsettling—but also pathetic, also exasperating—for their boring timelessness. There’s little less original than white racists shouting in the heat. Everybody’s seen the shape of these crowds; everybody knows the list of their grievances. The “Unite the Right” rally, with its secondhand slogans—“blood and soil,” “Jew will not replace us”—and its hand-me-down flags was still less shocking given Charlottesville’s recent history. Back in May, Richard Spencer, America’s latest smirking white supremacist, led a march of the so-called alt-right on the city. Just last month, members of the Ku Klux Klan took their turn. More regrettable visual clichés: stars and bars, tear gas and riot masks. Both groups claimed as inspiration another image, as old and iconic, in its way, as their cause: the form of Robert E. Lee astride his horse. Charlottesville’s city council voted to sell the statue of the general that stands at Lee Park, renamed Emancipation Park, and the ensuing chaos—a summer-long reactionary tantrum—has yet to wane.
A friend of mine, who’s black, was in Charlottesville in May, and, walking home, ran into Spencer’s protest. He was frozen by the torchlight, awed, almost, by the pagan intensity of the crowd’s idol worship, and had to shake himself out of a daze before he ran. He soon skipped town for a while—he’d been there for months, on a fellowship—the whole time dreading going back. Unsurprising, sure, all of it, but terror all the same—and, in the terrorist’s derivative way, soaking up more recent tropes: when, on Saturday, a car rammed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, it was impossible not to associate the act, and the death it caused, with similar vehicular attacks, in Nice and in London.
Here, today, is the President: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time.” But, of course, as regards this weekend—and other weekends, eerily alike—there is really only one side. A photo by Samuel Corum for Anadolu Agency presents it as it is. An all-white crowd of older men and women, but mostly college-aged kids, carrying, idiotically, torches used to keep mosquitoes out of nice families’ back yards. Orange light defines the outlines of their heads. A kid in a too-big white polo, black T-shirt underneath, is in the middle of a shout, like some upset Nazi toddler. A forelock hangs down; the wind might carry it into his eye. Which awful word sits on that half-shadowed tongue? He looks ridiculous, but even in the silence of the picture, his motives are clear. Trump knows, too—he’s too American not to recognize them—and yet he doesn’t say.
Sometimes it takes David Duke to point out the obvious: “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” Those and other, older promises as well.