The weekend clashes between white nationalist demonstrators and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., that killed a 32-year-old woman and injured others has reignited long-simmering fears that racist hate groups are resurgent nationally and now may feel emboldened to push their goals publicly.
President Donald Trump, whose 2016 campaign was embraced by right-wing groups, drew criticism from both political parties for initially blaming all sides and being slow to explicitly disavow the white nationalists, who included Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis.
Bart Bonikowski is an associate professor in Harvard’s Sociology Department and a faculty affiliate at the Center for European Studies and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He studies political sociology in the United States and Europe, with an emphasis on populist discourse and the processes that animate nationalist political movements. The Gazette spoke with Bonikowski about the political implications of the weekend violence.
GAZETTE: How do you view the rally and resulting violence that occurred in Charlottesville?
BONIKOWSKI: It’s clear at this point that the extreme right has been emboldened by Trump’s campaign rhetoric and policies since he’s come into office. It’s not too much of a stretch to draw a direct line between his discourse and the violence. His campaign focused primarily on anti-immigrant discourse and anti-Muslim rhetoric, but there were numerous dog whistles targeting African-Americans, as well: Comments about inner cities, his use of the phrase “my African-American,” his support for All Lives Matter, and his retweeting of neo-Nazis and failure to condemn [onetime Klan leader] David Duke during the campaign. All of these actions were clear attempts to mobilize two factions: one, everyday racist, ethnonationalist white supporters who are not members of the KKK or the neo-Nazi movement and second, the radical extremists we saw in Virginia.
In addition, even the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and to some degree, his populist appeals, have spillover effect that emboldened racist groups. All of that was clearly an attempt to reach out to these factions and build support for his candidacy. And since he’s come into office, President Trump has done a number of things to maintain that base of support — the halting of criminal justice reform, the disempowerment of the civil rights division at the Department of Justice, the threat to investigate affirmative action programs at elite universities — all of these decisions demonstrate commitment to ethnonationalism and embolden extremist movements. What that suggests is that these radical movements are part of his base, and his reaction to the Virginia events demonstrates he wants to continue receiving support from them.
GAZETTE: The conflict itself, the wall-to-wall public attention it garnered, and the president’s brief, middling initial response were celebrated by many white nationalist figures. Was Charlottesville a watershed moment for white nationalist groups politically?
BONIKOWSKI: It would be a mistake to say that these movements have been purely fringe prior to the Charlottesville rally. They’ve certainly been sidelined in mainstream politics in recent decades, but they’ve been very active on the ground in various parts of the country — not just the South. They have also been involved in terrorist attacks in the U.S. on numerous occasions. Once in a while, they attempt to gain entry into institutional politics, though usually unsuccessfully. This is all part and parcel of a long-term history of white supremacy in the United States.
But during President Trump’s administration, they’ve received greater legitimacy from the most powerful office in the country than they have in many, many decades. They are being actively legitimized by the administration which I think is a watershed moment. Not only is President Trump normalizing them, but they are actively exerting pressure on him to respond to these events in certain ways and to represent their interests. Immediately after one of his late and insufficient responses, David Duke said: Hey, watch out. We got you elected. You better stay true to your promises. And Trump’s subsequent rhetoric was in line with those instructions. So he’s very well aware of the fact that they’re important to his continued support and he’s hesitant to censure them in any way. In contrast, he’s not hesitant at all to rail against many other groups and institutions, including the media and the judiciary.
GAZETTE: It appears there’s a resurgence of white nationalist and white supremacist groups in the last few years. Is this ideology growing, and, if so, why now?
BONIKOWSKI: Until someone does actual systematic research on changes in the membership, it’s hard to know whether the movement itself is growing. With white supremacists and other extremist movements, much like with radical terrorism of all forms, one of the primary objectives is media attention. So the reason they hold these rallies and the reason these rallies sometimes turn violent is that they want to be noticed because that legitimizes their cause and amplifies their message. That’s exactly what they’re getting. It’s a tricky situation for journalists. On the one hand, giving them attention adds fuel to the fire. On the other hand, ignoring them is a problem because these are odious ideologies that have to be documented and condemned. So how to cover them in the media is a bit of a conundrum. In any case, regardless of whether their numbers are growing, their ideology is certainly getting a lot more attention, which is ultimately what they want. Moreover, in some ways, this is just the tip of an iceberg. It’s all too easy to dismiss these people as a small group of extremists — and they are that — but they’re part of a larger system of racial inequality and domination in the United States. White supremacism and racism in this country runs the full gamut from private views expressed around dinner tables and everyday discrimination all the way through neo-Nazis and the Klan who hold rallies and engage in violence. Trump’s rhetoric and his strategic silence is an attempt to reach out to this wide spectrum of people who hold ethnonationalist and racist views.
GAZETTE: A lot of people were disturbed and surprised to see that these white nationalists were mostly young, male, and dressed like suburban dads in tan khakis and golf shirts, not white hoods or studded black leather. Were you surprised to see how unabashedly public this rally was? Does their bland, “fresh face” style suggest something new about their appeal or a strategic approach to expand and push forward?
BONIKOWSKI: The fact that many of these people were middle-class white men is not surprising at all. White supremacist groups have long had support among middle-class Americans and not just the poor and uneducated. That’s been the case throughout U.S. history. It also shows that the kind of racial resentment that Trump draws on cannot be fully attributed to economic anxiety. For some supporters it is, but not overwhelmingly and not exclusively. These are people who lead reasonably comfortable lives, but what they perceive as a threat is a change to the demographic and cultural makeup of the country. They have a strong sense of subjective status loss and white victimization. These are long-standing narratives. So the fact that they’re middle class is not surprising. On the other hand, the fact that they’re not wearing masks, that they’re willing to show their faces, suggests that they’re emboldened, and they think that their ideology is seen as legitimate by at least some people, including presumably the administration. This is clearly an effort to demonstrate mainstream appeal.
Society in general has seen these groups as fringe and reasonably contained, but not everyone has that experience. African-Americans are often confronted with explicit forms of white supremacy from these kinds of movements, but also more subtle and passive forms of it in everyday life. So it’s probably more of a surprise to the general public than it is to certain communities that have been targeted in the past. The other thing is, my research suggests that Trump’s ability to capture the Republican Party in the primary was partly a result of a tension between cultural cleavages based on popular conceptions of national identity in the U.S. These cleavages are partly about who gets to be a legitimate American. Trump’s rise to power is a result of the successful mobilization of ethnonationalist forms of American identity. If that’s the case, it’s not all that surprising that the most extremist movements would be capitalizing on these developments during his presidency.
GAZETTE: How much of this is truly organic, how much is a byproduct of social media amplification, and how much is an elaborate trolling of so-called political correctness, the kind of thing encouraged in online communities like 4chan or Reddit? Is there any way to know?
BONIKOWSKI: It’s hard to know how to draw that distinction. Even if some of it is performative, it has very concrete consequences, as shown by the violence and the killing that occurred. But also it has spillover effects to everyday life among people who are not part of the rally. It affects how people interact on the street and in schools, much as Trump’s [campaign] rhetoric may have influenced some people’s beliefs and behavior toward minorities. So the question of how dearly they hold these views, I’m not sure that’s so relevant. In some ways, we could ask the same question about Nazis in the 1930s. How many of them really believed in the ideology, how many of them joined because their friends joined, how many of them were doing it to belong to some sort of community? All of these are interesting pathways from an academic standpoint, but at the end of the day, the movement committed unspeakable atrocities and embroiled the world in a massive war. Here too, there are many pathways toward social-movement mobilization that sociologists have documented, but what matters more in this case are the consequences.
In terms of the role of the changing media landscape, these movements existed before social media, but they now have a larger number of channels through which they can disseminate their message and through which they can coordinate their actions. You mentioned 4chan and Reddit and Twitter, of course, but also a number of news or quasi-news online organizations, including Breitbart and Stormfront, that allow this content to be freely shared and easily accessible to the wider public. It seems that the megaphone they have is getting louder and more powerful.
What is crucial is how mainstream media and political elites respond to this. And economic elites, as well: CEOs are resigning from the president’s American Manufacturing Council in protest of President Trump’s tepid reaction to Charlottesville. So the onus is on anyone who is seen as an opinion leader, as a thought leader, to unambiguously and explicitly condemn these events and President Trump’s behavior and make clear that this is not an acceptable situation in contemporary United States.
The fact that these extremist movements are seeing Trump’s response as supportive of their tactics and their ideology does not bode well for the immediate future. My guess is that we’re going to see more rallies, we’re likely to see more violence and even net of that, I think the everyday lives of African-Americans, of Muslims, of Latinos, of other minorities in this country are likely to get more dangerous because people outside the movement are also emboldened by these extremist actions and the president’s lack of condemnation of them.
GAZETTE: Where does the movement go from here? Does the widespread public backlash suggest these groups might dial back their incendiary efforts?
BONIKOWSKI: It’s hard to predict the future, but I doubt that this will be the case. As I mentioned, these movements thrive when they receive attention in the media, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. And in this case, they’re getting the media attention as well as support from the president. So, if anything, this is likely to give them an incentive to hold more rallies and become more extremist in their practices.
At the same time, what the current moment might produce is a stronger reaction against President Trump’s discourse among Congressional Republicans, among people who have otherwise been willing to turn a blind eye to his previous norm violations. Fortunately, at least some people draw a sharp moral line when it comes to the KKK and white supremacy. Unfortunately, not everyone has been vocal about this, but a number of Republicans have. And so, there’s hope that as a consequence of these events, there will be a greater willingness to censure the president in the future. But again, as we’ve seen in the past couple of months, this all too often consists of little more than statements of dissatisfaction and concern, but no concrete action. We’ll see how things go forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
(Reprinted with permission from Harvard Gazette.)