As so many Americans join together in shock over the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, the one thing we’ve repeatedly been told by sincere leaders on both sides of the aisle is that this isn’t what America stands for.
This isn’t us, they say.
I happen to believe that most of them truly mean it and have the genuine intention of uniting this country around a more optimistic vision of America. After all, there is little else we can do at times like these.
But is that really true? Is this really not exactly what America is right now?
In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president, it was a proud day for the country. In fact, many people had felt that it was the final step in eradicating racial divisions in America.
But maybe it was just the opposite.
Perhaps that historic moment nearly a decade ago – while a huge step forward in the unending work of perfecting our union – also gave oxygen to hate groups that, at the time, were beginning to fade in relevance, or were at least more ashamed to show their faces in public.
Racial tensions may have, indeed, flared up under Obama, but it was never his fault. He was a hardworking, competent, intelligent, and scandal-free president. He never took their bait; he just did his job.
That reality – the idea that a black man was succeeding in a position too many Americans didn’t think he should legitimately have – gave new life to white supremacists.
Now, take the anger these bigots felt living in a country run by an effective African-American president and combine it with Donald Trump, who masterfully bottled this rising minority resentment and used it to fuel a presidential campaign.
Kicking off his candidacy by denigrating Mexican immigrants, slapping a “Make America Great Again” slogan on his podiums, winking and nodding about bringing “law and order” back to America, encouraging violence at his rallies, proposing to keep Muslims out of the country – all of these things were being said and done by an actual presidential nominee.
As a result, the racially motivated anger and hatred these people felt – many of them quietly – during Obama’s tenure was brought even further out of the shadows.
They no longer had to pretend their outrage was about anything other than the growing, non-white population of the United States.
After all, if a presidential candidate – now president – can publicly hold the very same views they do about an increasingly diverse America, then why shouldn’t they loudly and proudly express their own?
Why shouldn’t they light up tiki torches and march through a college town shouting “blood and soil,” “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us?”
Why shouldn’t one of them get in a car and plow through a crowd of people who were marching for a more inclusive, loving, and diverse America?
And, more importantly, what’s to stop them from doing it again in a much more violent and deadly fashion?
Especially when the President of the United States – the man who has undeniably fed this toxic environment – has refused to call out this weekend’s madness for what it truly was: a white supremacist terrorist attack that has no place in a civilized society.
Though the vast majority of Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and independents – do not condone the racially driven terrorism and hatred we saw in Charlottesville this weekend, this is increasingly what America is becoming with Donald Trump in the White House.
The most extreme and hateful elements of this country are no longer afraid to show their ugly faces. They no longer pretend they want anything other than a country that is run by and for white people. And they’ll do anything – even using the ISIS playbook – to impose their vision on the rest of us.
These are the voices that Donald Trump has inspired and emboldened through his ugly campaign rhetoric, his backward-looking policy proposals, and his repeated refusal to condemn this type of racially inspired violence in the strongest possible terms.
So long as he continues to give oxygen to these people, this is exactly what America will be, and what we saw in Charlottesville this weekend – not just the violence, but the disgusting display of proud bigotry – will likely rear its ugly head again somewhere else.
Sean Colarossi currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was an organizing fellow for both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns. He also worked with Planned Parenthood as an Affordable Care Act Outreach Organizer in 2014, helping northeast Ohio residents obtain health insurance coverage.