Almost by definition, the white nationalist movement over the past 40 years has worked against the political establishment. It was too easy for politicians to condemn the movement — even when there was overlap on policy issues — because it was a liability without enough political force to make the huge cost of associating with it worthwhile. Until Tuesday, I didn’t believe that had changed.
We have all observed the administration’s decisions over the past several months that aligned with the white nationalist agenda, such as limiting or completely cutting off legal and illegal immigration, especially of Hispanics and Muslims; denigrating black communities as criminal and poor, threatening to unleash an even greater police force on them; and going after affirmative action as antiwhite discrimination. But I had never believed Trump’s administration would have trouble distancing itself from the actual white nationalist movement.
Yet President Trump stepped in to salvage the message that the rally organizers had originally hoped to project: “George Washington was a slave owner,” he said, and asked, “So will George Washington now lose his status?” Then: “How about Thomas Jefferson?” he asked. “Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue?” He added: “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
Until Trump’s comments, few critics seemed to identify the larger relationship the alt-right sees between its beliefs and the ideals of the American founders. Charlottesville is synonymous with Jefferson. The city lies at the foot of Monticello and is the home of the University of Virginia, the school he founded. Over the years I’ve made several pilgrimages to Charlottesville, both when I was a white nationalist and since I renounced the ideology. While we all know that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal,” his writings also offer room for explicitly white nationalist interpretation.
My father observed many times that the quotation from Jefferson’s autobiography embedded on the Jefferson Memorial is deceptive because it reads, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these [the Negro] people are to be free.” It does not include the second half of the sentence: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”
Jefferson’s writings partly inspired the American colonization movement, which encouraged the return of free black people to Africa — a goal that was pursued even by Abraham Lincoln during the first years of the Civil War.
The most fundamental legislative goal of the white nationalist movement is to limit nonwhite immigration. It is important to remember that such limits were in place during the lifetimes of many current white nationalists; it was the default status until the 1960s. In the 1790s, the first naturalization laws of the United States Congress limited citizenship to a “free white person.”
Legislation in the 1920s created quotas for immigration based on national origin, which placed severe restrictions on the total number of immigrants and favored northern and western European immigration. It was only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s that the national origin quota system was abolished and Congress fully removed the restriction favoring white immigrants.
I’m not offering these historical anecdotes to defame the history of the country. I’m not calling for Jefferson’s statue to be removed along with the Confederate memorials. I do, however, think it is essential that we recognize that the white nationalist history embedded in American culture lends itself to white nationalist rallies like the one in Charlottesville. If you want to preserve Confederate memorials, but you don’t work to build monuments to historical black leaders, you share the same cause as the marchers.
Until Tuesday I believed the organizers of the rally had failed in their goal to make their movement more appealing to average white Americans. The rally superimposed Jefferson’s image on that of a pseudo K.K.K. rally and brought the overlap between Jefferson and white nationalist ideas to mind for anyone looking to find them. But the horrific violence that followed seemed to hurt their cause.
And then President Trump intervened. His comments supporting the rally gave new purpose to the white nationalist movement, unlike any endorsement it has ever received. Among its followers, being at that rally will become something to brag about, and some people who didn’t want to be associated with extremism will now see the cause as more mainstream. When the president doesn’t provide condemnation that he has been pressed to give, what message does that send but encouragement?
The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today. Things have improved from the radical promotion of white people at the expense of all others, which has persisted for most of our history, yet most of us have not accepted the extent to which white identity guides so much of what we still do. Sometimes it seems that the white nationalists are most honest about the very real foundation of white supremacy upon which our nation was built.
The president’s words legitimized the worst of our country, and now the white nationalist movement could be poised to grow. To challenge these messages, we need to acknowledge the continuity of white nationalist thought in American history, and the appeal it still holds.
It is a fringe movement not because its ideas are completely alien to our culture, but because we work constantly to argue against it, expose its inconsistencies and persuade our citizens to counter it. We can no longer count on the country’s leader to do this, so it’s now incumbent upon all of us.