Editor’s Note: The neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville and the killing of a counter-protester highlighted to Americans what terrorism watchers have long known: Right-wing extremism in the United States is alive and dangerous. Trump's election appears to have invigorated the movement, and the attention given to Charlottesville may strengthen it even more. Assuming the president wants to fight this movement—which for now, alas, is just an assumption—what should he do? My Brookings colleague Chris Meserole diagnoses the problem and offers three ways the government can confront this danger.
Last Friday, America’s far-right fringe held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Although it was not the first such rally in the city this summer—the alt-right leader Richard Spencer held one in May, and the Ku Klux Klan another in July—it was by far the most violent. Clashes occurred throughout Friday evening and Saturday morning, leading Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency. Yet to no avail: As the protests shifted to side streets, James Fields, Jr. drove headlong into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring 19 others.
The violence in Charlottesville has since been eclipsed by the ignominy with which President Trump refused to disavow it. Yet it remains noteworthy. The bloodshed in Charlottesville marked a dangerous turning point in the modern history of the American far-right. Although right-wing protests and right-wing violence are nothing new, the combination of the two is. A recent government report listed over 60 fatal attacks by right-wing extremists since 2001, but none occurred at a rally—until Saturday. The foreboding implication is that the more the white nationalist movement uses these rallies to comprehend its own strength, the more its members will feel ever greater license to carry out ever greater violence.
Although right-wing protests and right-wing violence are nothing new, the combination of the two is.
Charlottesville was also remarkable for the openness and rabidity with which right-wing extremists congregated. Individuals who attended the protest made no attempt to conceal their identity, despite knowing that images from the rally were likely to spread virally online. Indeed, the main effect of the protest was to signal a sense of impunity rather than grievance: The fact that the protestors could fight for white supremacy without fear of consequence was precisely the point. When Fields later repurposed his vehicle as a lethal weapon, he was merely confirming, in horrid contour, the rally’s core message and impulse.
The Trump administration now faces a daunting task. As Gen. Kelly and others in the White House surely know, for the Trump Presidency to move forward, it must prevent the violence of the far-right from escalating any further. How can it do so?
Three steps stand out.
First and most immediately, the administration should help local law enforcement learn from Charlottesville. Blaming the violence on the Charlottesville police, as the organizer of the rally has done, is irresponsible insofar as it deflects blame from the white nationalists themselves. Yet the measures typically used to handle charged protests peaceably do not appear to have been taken. As Mark Pitcavage has noted, physical separation is key: Protestors and counter-protestors should have separate zones in which to assemble, as well as separate paths leading from those zones to separate protest areas. Further, weapons, even makeshift ones, should not be allowed beyond the assembly zones. Since the alt-right has already planned additional rallies, heeding these lessons will be essential to maintaining order in the future.
Second, the Trump administration should reinvest in programs to counter right-wing extremism. Fields' path to violence was not unnoticed. His teachers had expressed concern about his radical views—including his vocal and consistent support for Adolf Hitler—and his mother called the police twice about her son, once after he threatened her with a knife. The government needs to fund civil society programs that teachers and parents can turn to when they suspect their student or child is at risk of radicalizing. Just as we need programs to help prevent radicalization among those enamored of jihadism, we also need them for those that identify with white supremacism. The Trump administration should reverse its decision to halt right-wing counter-extremism programs, and instead redouble their funding.
Finally, the entirety of the Trump administration needs to signal repeatedly and credibly that far-right violence is unacceptable. This is now a monumentally more difficult task than it was a week ago. At a press conference on Tuesday, President Trump insisted that the torch-bearing neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates in Charlottesville, whose marches consisted primarily of racist and anti-Semitic incantations, included “fine people.” Worse, he also averred once again that the lethal terrorism of James Fields, Jr. was morally equivalent to rough-and-tumble altercations involving left-leaning counter-protestors. If the violence in Charlottesville marked a turning point in far-right extremism, President Trump’s remarks marked a turning point in the messaging of the Republican Party: After a half-century of dog-whistling racial appeals, Trump pocketed the whistle and made the appeals explicit. It’s no wonder that David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, then praised Trump for his “courage;” as Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush put it in the New York Times, “President Trump buoyed the white nationalist movement on Tuesday as no president has done in generations.”
This messaging alone will be insufficient if the Trump administration does not restore and radically expand domestic CVE initiatives designed to combat right-wing extremism.
President Trump himself will now find it difficult to speak with any credibility about far-right extremism. His administration, though, can nonetheless signal that it is committed to curtailing the growth of the white nationalist movement and preventing further extremist violence. For starters, Gen. Kelly should purge the Trump White House of any remaining alt-right architects and sympathizers, such as Stephen Miller, and in tandem President Trump and his cabinet should release a co-signed statement communicating that they understand the full gravity of far-right violence and the moral failure it represents. This messaging alone will be insufficient if the Trump administration does not restore and radically expand domestic CVE initiatives designed to combat right-wing extremism. Further, it should also establish and lead a multinational effort, in partnership with our European allies, to confront the recent emergence of far-right networks that span the Atlantic.
Whether President Trump will authorize such a concerted effort is an open question, but we must continue to pose it and exert popular and political pressure to guide the administration’s response. Far-right extremism is not an intractable problem, and the Trump administration enjoys a number of ways by which it can meaningfully reduce the potential for violence. Should President Trump refuse to take action, both he and his administration will be complicit in any violence that follows.