It was an image straight out of a standard Jewish nightmare. The spectacle of neo-Nazis and their Ku Klux Klan allies holding a torchlight parade through the streets of an American city while chanting about the Jews—and ultimately, killing a female counter-protester—is imprinted on the minds of a Jewish community that was predisposed to obsess about the possibility of history repeating itself.
Irrespective of the small numbers of those involved, the symbolism and subsequent baffling inability of the president of the United States to stick to a straightforward condemnation of the rally made Charlottesville much more than just a troubling incident involving marginal extremists.
So, one year later, the question remains what exactly, beyond the horror those events evoked, does it actually mean for the future of the United States or the revival of anti-Semitism?
The notion that the Republican Party had been taken over by the so-called “alt-right” and that a wave of support from such a movement had swept Trump into power gave many, especially in the Jewish community, the impression that America was heading towards fascism.
Some of this was based on a misunderstanding about the source of Trump’s support, as well as the nature of Breitbart.com, the conservative website that was headed by Steve Bannon, who served as Trump’s campaign manager in the final months of the 2016 contest. Contrary to Bannon’s quip, Breitbart was the voice of right-wing populism, not the alt-right, and never provided a platform for anti-Semitism. Nor was Bannon, who had a brief stint as a senior White House adviser before being shown the door after only a few months, an anti-Semite.
Nevertheless, the willingness of Trump to pander to extremists at times with statements about minorities blurred the lines between those on the margins of American political life and his campaign. In early 2017, a string of bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers around the country prompted concern about the focus of the new administration. Though we had already learned the threats were the work of a disturbed Israeli teenager—and not some band of alt-right extremists inspired by Trump—by the time of the Charlottesville rally that summer, the claim that the president bore responsibility for what was misrepresented as a surge of anti-Semitism in the United States stuck to him. The refusal of the Anti-Defamation League to retract its false accusations about the incidents bears some of the blame for this.
Yet in August of that year, Trump seemed to equivocate at times about the hate march, at one point claiming that there were “some very fine people” joining the Nazis in opposing the removal of Confederate statues. Asserting a moral equivalence between those hatemongers and their opponents was the wrong thing to say and gave license to his detractors to associate him with people with whom he had no ties or even interest.
It was this, more than anything else, that gave even a sliver of credibility to hysterical notions that he was setting the stage for tyranny. But for the most part, he has followed the path of a conventional conservative since taking office.
Nor, despite the ongoing anger that is fueled by Trump’s behavior and relentless Twitter feed, is the United States reliving the last days of the Weimar republic. Trump may feud with the media in an unseemly manner, but freedom of the press is not in peril. Nor is the Constitution. Trump critics hear echoes of Charlottesville in his so-called Muslim travel ban and the short-lived “zero tolerance” for illegal immigrants. But it is possible to advocate for stricter security at the border and for existing laws to be enforced without advocating hate. Americans need to separate debates about Trump the individual from those about policy that would occur under any Republican administration. Egregious analogies about the Holocaust have no place in American politics.
Just as important, the focus on Charlottesville has to some extent obscured left-wing anti-Semitism, which has more influence and a far greater audience than the alt-right trolls who scared us a year ago. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is a Jew-hater with a mass following, including leaders of the anti-Trump “resistance” and Women’s March movement. Add to that the BDS movement, which isn’t just against Israel’s existence. It traffics in open anti-Semitism, as well as in creating a hostile atmosphere for Jews on North American college campuses.
Still, that doesn’t relieve Trump of the responsibility to provide moral leadership, which is, perhaps, the most important part of leading any government.
His unwillingness to do what people expect of him, especially with regard to what we would ordinarily refer to as proper behavior and statements, is well-known. It stems from an instinctual belief that if conventional wisdom and a loosely defined establishment say to do one thing, then he should be doing something else. That willingness to flout convention and political correctness also lies at the heart of his popularity.
The president’s failure to send a consistent message condemning the sort of hate that emanated from Charlottesville last year goes a long way towards explaining why it is possible for so many otherwise sensible people to wrongly believe that incident was the tip of the iceberg of American hate, instead of a painful and thankfully isolated incident involving persons with no influence whatsoever. The claims that the administration is somehow complicit in hate and anti-Semitism are false. But more than any other factor, that meme went viral because of avoidable mistakes by the president. If the mainstream media cover the Charlottesville anniversary as being more about Trump than anything else, it won’t be fair, but he will have no one to blame for it but himself.
It may be too much to expect Trump to play the role of healer-in-chief. But by choosing not to do so, he has set the stage for what will likely be an orgy of national introspection about Charlottesville that will likely obscure the truth about hate in America, rather than shed some light on it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.