The coded alt-right signal Donald Trump uses to defend white nationalists in Charlottesville

Cherishing whose history?
Cherishing whose history?
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Donald Trump has, in just four days, done a complete 360 on the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist rally erupted into violence that resulted in the death of one counter-protester. After blaming “many sides” for the violence in his initial remarks over the weekend, on Monday he condemned the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and other white supremacist demonstrators. Then today (Aug. 15), he doubled-down on his original position, unleashing a tirade of moral equivalency during a Trump Tower press conference in New York.

His argument swiveled on the ostensible reason for the Unite the Right rally: their opposition to the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate Army in the US Civil War. Demonstrators in other American cities also have begun toppling statues of Confederate leaders.

Trump likened this to felling the statues of some of America’s Founding Fathers:

So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that [Confederate general] Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you all–you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

Pushed by reporters to explain why he equated the leaders of the American revolution with the Confederate generals, Trump said:

George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down—excuse me—are we going to take down—are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?

OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.

First off, no one but Trump is talking about taking down statues of the the first and third US presidents. More significantly, his point echoes what he said Saturday, encouraging Americans to “cherish our history.”

White nationalist demonstrators hold their ground against Virginia State Police in front of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.
White nationalist demonstrators hold their ground against Virginia State Police in front of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.
Image: AP/Steve Helber

Trump’s allusion to “history” is a dog whistle, explains Brian Buetler in the New Republic.

“The generic appeal to history is the pretext racists use to support the valorization of a slave society and its military leaders,” writes Beutler. “Trump didn’t just draw a moral equivalence between Nazis and counter-protesters, but took the Nazis’ side in the dispute that motivated their violence.”

Washington and Jefferson did indeed own slaves, and it’s good to remind people of that. They weren’t, however, solely defined by their participation in that vile institution. They did lots of historical good in setting the foundation for a free society. Colonial America’s revolt British tyranny, the Declaration of Independence, and their roles in establishing a young nation in a chaotic environment all have had echoes around the globe. Celebrating Washington and Jefferson in sculpture celebrates the bravery, patriotism, and ingenuity that became part of America’s heritage, and an inspiration to freedom seekers everywhere.

Lee and Jackson, on the other hand, didn’t govern a pioneering country or advance profound ideas on the nature of liberty and democracy. Their sole contributions to history were fighting to make sure American whites in the secessionist states could continue to claim blacks as personal property. (In fact, Lee was a lousy military strategist.) They are icons of that abysmal cause alone. That is why so many of these statues were built during the Jim Crow era—as a monumental reminder to black residents that whites still thought they were less than human.

Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, recently spoke eloquently about this symbolism in an incisive speech explaining the removal of four Confederate monuments, including one of Lee. He points to the historical “lie of omission” that resides in the facts that aren’t commemorated in public markers—that New Orleans used to be the country’s biggest slave market, or that some 540 people were lynched in Louisiana. Statues of Lee and his ilk weren’t erected to honor those specific men, but rather to “rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy”—an ideology known as the Lost Cause, which holds that Southerners fought the Civil War to defend liberty, not to preserve slavery.

“They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history,” said Landrieu. “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

It’s a lesson lost on the current American president, who chooses to inspire the worst of his countrymen.