At a Tuesday afternoon press appearance, President Trump defended the alt-right protest on the campus of the University of Virginia Friday night — at which demonstrators carrying tiki torches gave Nazi salutes and chanted slogans including, “Jews will not replace us!” — as being about a defense of Southern heritage.
The rally-goers, the president says, were there to prevent Charlottesville’s government from taking down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the city — which he thinks is a perfectly reasonable cause to rally on behalf of:
Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee. You take a look at some of the groups and you see and you would know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you are not.
Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
Trump is correct that the protest was nominally about protecting a statue. But the notion that that somehow means the protest wasn’t about racism is flat wrong.
To see why, check out the following chart, from a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors American far-right groups. It shows the dates that various monuments to the Confederacy were installed. You’ll notice two peaks of monument building — one around the turn of the 20th century, the other about 50 years later:
What do these time periods have in common? Racial conflict.
As the SPLC report explains:
Two distinct periods saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments and other symbols. The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. The second spike began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists.
It’s not an accident that these statues were mostly built when the South was busy establishing Jim Crow and defending it from the civil rights movement. This is because the purpose of Confederate monuments, as Princeton historian Kevin Kruse argues on Twitter, is not to serve as pure historical markers — but to glorify the Confederate cause. They assert that a war fought on behalf of slavery was a just one, that the people who fought it were morally upright, and that white supremacy should be cherished as part of Southern “heritage.”
That’s why Trump’s equivalency between Confederate statues and one of George Washington misses the mark. Washington was a slave owner, yes, but the meaning of a Washington statue is not necessarily pro-slavery or pro-white supremacy — whereas that’s exactly the point of the vast majority of Confederate memorials in the United States.
Once you understand this point, it becomes obvious why neo-Nazis and white supremacists would rally to the defense of Confederate memorials. The only outstanding question is why the president of the United States would do the same.