There's a famous old saying (often wrongly attributed to the novelist Sinclair Lewis) that "when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Last weekend, we saw that notion is more than a little outdated. When fascism came to Charlottesville, Va. — the quintessentially American place that a long, long time ago gave us Thomas Jefferson — it was decked out in khakis from Dockers and carrying tiki torches from the outdoor patio department at Home Depot. Indeed, one thing we learned this weekend is that citronella might be great for keeping away flying insects, but it does nothing to deter vermin.
The hundreds who descended on the central Virginia university town for what they called a "Unite the Right" rally did wrap themselves in plenty of flags. It wasn't Old Glory, however, but the Stars and Bars of the old Confederacy — the unmistakable symbol of the rally's lost cause of white supremacy — and, even more shockingly, the red-and-black swastikas that more than a few marchers greeted with a Nazi salute. They chanted things like "blood and soil" — a Nazi slogan from the 1930s — and "Jews will not replace us." Simply put, there was absolutely no mistaking which of the "many sides" of modern American politics was the Bad Side in Charlottesville.
And that was before the unspeakable tragedy that took place early Saturday afternoon, when a 20-year-old Ohio attendee of this neo-Nazi Woodstock jammed the accelerator pedal of his Dodge Challenger and plowed into a crowd of marchers who had flocked to Charlottesville to protest against fascism. The marchers were the Good Side. This act of blatant terrorism against them created an image — innocent black and white bodies flying in the air and flipped upside down in a blur of deadly metal and speed — that will forever remain an indelible stain on American history, much like the pictures from a generation past of parking-lot grief at Kent State or naked terror on a dirt road in Vietnam. When the shrieking stopped, at least 19 people were hurt and 32-year-old Heather Heyer lay dead on the pavement. (Meanwhile, two Virginia state troopers who had been pressed into duty to monitor the neo-Nazi protests died when their helicopter crashed.) Heyer's final words on Facebook — decrying the things that were already taking place in America in 2017 — said, "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."
You could speculate whether President Trump — with his empty and stunningly vacant reaction to the nature of the hatred on display in Charlottesville, first on Twitter and later at a public appearance from his New Jersey golf resort — has been truly paying attention to what's been going in this country since he descended his Trump Tower escalator and America started descending into madness two summers ago. But it's almost certain our 45th president knew exactly what he was doing when he failed to denounce white supremacy and Nazism, with his vapid "many sides"-do-it wave of the hand. And our moral vacuum in the Oval Office now creates a moral dilemma for the rest of us.
The failure of fundamental decency was described by New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza as "by far the most disgraceful day of Donald Trump's presidency" — and, if anything, that was an understatement. Some noted that Trump had seemed more outraged by Nordstrom's dropping his daughter Ivanka's clothing line than by Nazism in the American heartland. First the president with the restless Twitter thumbs said nothing for hours, leaving it for others, like 91-year-old Michigan ex-congressman John Dingell — "I signed up to fight Nazis 73 years ago and I'll do it again if I have to" — to show leadership. Even Melania Trump spoke out before her husband.
Then came the word salad that sounded like randomly generated phases from a Hallmark computer — reminders that our narcissistic president has never felt a shred of human empathy in his life. (At one point, Trump offered his "best regards" to those wounded by the terrorist driver, as though congratulating recent high school graduates.) The president's vague call "to come together as Americans with love for our nation" that he read aloud at a veterans event in central Jersey were generic and delivered without passion or conviction. And that was before Trump ad-libbed that the blame for violence was not with "white supremacists" or "Nazis" or "fascists" — words he would not dare utter — but with "many sides."
That was the dog whistle the cadre of hate-filled white nationalists had clearly been waiting to hear. After Trump's first insipid tweet, the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer asked on Twitter if the president was denouncing "antifa" — progressive people such as murder victim Heyer who march against fascism. The president's reaction was even praised on the pro-Nazi website Daily Stormer, which noted, correctly, "No condemnation at all." Indeed, what happened on Saturday was truly remarkable. America had looked to its president for leadership in a time of crisis — and the president made things worse.
One especially lame moment on Saturday came when Trump called for "a study" of the causes of violence in Charlottesville, as though this had been a shocking out-of-left-field event and not the culmination of years of festering hate. Would Trump's "study" team enter the corridors of the White House to examine the roles of his white nationalist aides, such as Sebastian Gorka, linked to racist and anti-Semitic groups in Hungary, or Steve Bannon, who boasted of creating a vehicle for the "alt-right" (their term, not mine) that descended on Charlottesville through his Breitbart News, or Stephen Miller, the "white nationalist ally" who may have crafted the president's empty talk this weekend?
Will Trump really create some kind of task force that will talk to the Nazis who showed up in Virginia and who said the reason that white supremacists feel so emboldened — why they no longer cover their faces in white sheets like the KKK did in the 1960s — is the election of Donald Trump as president? Will they interview former Klan leader David Duke, who told reporters in Charlottesville their hatefest meant "we are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump"? Will they look into why alleged domestic terrorist James Alex Fields, driver of the death car, told his mother in Ohio he was leaving for a rally that had "something to do with Trump"?
Trump has no real condemnation for the forces that caused the terror in Charlottesville because he is one of the forces that caused the terror in Charlottesville. He not only incubated — with his hateful rhetoric during his 2016 campaign — the climate that brought this cancer out into the open, he even turned up the temperature a couple of degrees on Saturday with his shameful reaction.
It's impossible to overstate how terrible this last week has been for America. Trump's leadership fumble on Charlottesville has actually made us forget for a few hours that he has also threatened to launch a nuclear war. Today, we are in completely uncharted waters. There is a total vacuum of moral leadership in the White House, a bottomless pit seemingly devoid even of basic human decency. America has survived civil war, a criminal conspiracy in the Oval Office, and various other disasters in the last 241 years, but can we survive without a leader?