Professor Michael Cullinane of Roehampton University writes for our partner The Trump Project and for the BBC History magazine
It is difficult to pin-point Donald Trump’s worst day in office — there are so many to choose from! — but CNN’s Chris Cillizza believes that Saturday, August 12 was the low point of his presidency so far. On that day, Trump addressed — or rather failed to address — the rising tide of white supremacy.
The context for Trump’s address was the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly a gathering of right-wing activists but in fact an assembly of racists chanting anti-Semitic and xenophobic hate. The march culminated in the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer, an anti-discrimination activist. Trump’s initial statement denounced the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides”, suggesting that anti-discrimination protests shared the same blame for Heyer’s death and the public disorder as white supremacists. Politicians of all stripes criticized Trump for fecklessness and ignorance; most also accused him of dog-whistle politics and pandering to his base.
As an American and a regular contributor to UK news media, I often get asked to explain the cultural differences between the US and Europe. They can seem stark. Gun culture and the preposterous number of shooting deaths is a regular feature in European news because gun ownership is so popular in the United States, and mass murder so frequent.
But the coverage of guns and crime pales in comparison to the coverage of Trump. The news media on both sides of the Atlantic are obsessed. To explain Trump’s rise to high office and unique place in the history of American politics, I revive often forgotten episodes of the near past as useful insights into the national psyche.
For me, the Charlottesville march in August can be understood by remembering the Ruby Ridge standoff in 1992. Randy Weaver’s story is one that can help us understand the convergence of far-right politics and white supremacy.