The valences of that history may not be of obvious importance to the organizers of the Unite the Right rally, but the collective of groups under its banner seems to have an affinity for symbols and spaces with deep significance to America’s racial story. Like moths to a flame, a year ago they were drawn to Charlottesville, Virginia, a storied home and resting place for both patriots and Confederates, by a dispute involving the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. As a venerable bastion of public academia—one with its own endemic racial disparities, and one built by the enslaved—suddenly faced with a violent, out-of-control, demagogic inferno led by one of its own children, Charlottesville doubled as a metaphor for the rapid advance of white nationalism in elite spaces.
But now, the story has changed. The stakes are different. As my colleague Adam Serwer writes, despite what appears to be a series of losses for the movement since last August, “the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction.” Demographic threat has been activated, the majority of white Americans see themselves as aggrieved parties in a culture war, and the White House has become increasingly comfortable with issuing outright anti-immigrant directives. Ironically, what projects by all accounts to be a smaller and more timid rally this year actually doubles as a coronation, an indication that fringe provocateurs and firebrands may no longer be necessary, because the fringe is now the center.
D.C. is a new symbolic place for this phase of the alt-right. A city built and maintained by slavery, but one also where the founding documents of a liberal order are kept, this is a place that captures the rhetorical promise of white nationalism: Herrenvolk democracy, and a birthright power won by blood. But the more recent history better parallels how white nationalism will actually influence the country’s discourse. The racial panics that shaped the city weren’t led by charismatic demagoguery, but by group threat—by white flight and state violence and the sheer irresistibility of capital. And as much as a group of poorly outfitted angry white men with swastika tattoos and tiki torches may seem to exist outside of those formal structures, history says the goals can and will converge.
If the protesters do take the Green Line, they will encounter an old power that hasn’t yet been driven out of the city in its entirety. They’ll find people riding the A4 bus who’ve seen their kind before; mothers and grandmothers who fled sundown towns and arrived in D.C. from back roads with only Green Book directories to guide them. They’ll see a D.C. that isn’t in the papers anymore, with neighborhoods full of tough and proud people who came to be that way in part because of the very racial terrors that the predecessors of the alt-right endorsed and fomented. But even if those routes are inconvenient for their purposes, perhaps the journalists and tourists who come to report or just gawk at white boys with bad haircuts will take a detour, and understand. Because it can never be forgotten that what’s at stake here isn’t an abstract thing, but could very well mean annihilation for some people.
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