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The Memo: Charlottesville reverberates as new trial begins

The Hill logo The Hill 10/26/2021 Niall Stanage
File photo of white nationalist demonstrators clashing with counter demonstrators in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017 © Associated Press - Steve Helber File photo of white nationalist demonstrators clashing with counter demonstrators in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017

Jury selection began Monday in a civil case that aims to hold organizers of the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., financially accountable for the violence that took place.

The legal action also serves as a reminder of the way those events reverberate across American society.

More than four years on from the chaos - in which an anti-racism protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed after being struck by a vehicle driven by a 20-year-old man with a reported Adolf Hitler fixation - the nation is still reckoning with its effects.

The violence in Charlottesville erupted just seven months into then-President Trump's time in office.

His equivocal response to it colored American politics in the years that followed. And the fact that far-right groups felt emboldened to gather in such numbers and to proclaim slogans like "Jews will not place us!" in the first place was proof of the toxic currents that are still coursing through U.S. society.

Some experts draw a direct line from Trump's comments encouraging violence on the campaign trail in 2016, through Charlottesville to the Capitol insurrection earlier this year.

"Charlottesville is one of those pivotal moments in American history. Obviously it was not a major turning point on policy or programs in the way that, say, Bloody Sunday led to the Voting Rights Act. But it is of great symbolic importance," said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University.

"It showed that virulent white supremacy, neo-Nazism, even Klan movements are still alive and well. And of course it showed that Trump, as president, was at best insensitive to the significance of those movements and at worst sympathetic to them."

The violence erupted after various far-right forces aimed to use the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as a rallying point. The event was labeled "Unite the Right" in recognition of that purpose.

The civil case has been taken by Charlottesville residents who are seeking to hold right-wing individuals and organizations accountable by asserting that they conspired to cause the violence.

Among the 24 defendants, several have argued that they did not plot violence but simply expressed political views protected by the First Amendment. To the extent that they helped organize the gathering, they say that does not make them morally or financially culpable for the violence that ensued.

"I never planned for Charlottesville to end up in the kind of chaos that it did, and I'm simply not responsible," one of the defendants, the well-known far-right leader Richard Spencer, told The Wall Street Journal in a story published Monday.

But the plaintiffs, who say they want to bankrupt Spencer and the other organizers, give no credence to those arguments.

"Most people have no idea the degree of coordination, planning and hatred involved," a co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Karen Dunn, told the Journal. "This is the first time that the whole story will be told."

Experts in political extremism recall how the events in Charlottesville gave a grim confirmation of the warnings they had been sounding for years before.

"For someone who had already been watching extremist groups for 17 years, it was an incredible display of how vitalized and organized - and how big - this movement had become. This was far and away the largest white supremacist rally in decades," Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told this column.

Beirich said she saw echoes of what happened in Charlottesville in at least two subsequent mass shootings: the 2018 antisemitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the 2019 attack at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that appeared to have targeted Latinos. Eleven people were killed in the first shooting; 23 were killed in the second.

Trump's comments in the immediate aftermath of the Charlottesville violence that there were "very fine people on both sides" dogged him for the rest of his presidency. When then-candidate Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign in April 2019, he did so with a video that featured images from the attack and a reminder of Trump's words.

"The president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it," Biden said in the video. "And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I'd ever seen in my lifetime."

There was another political facet to Charlottesville, too - while Trump's approval rating dipped noticeably in the immediate aftermath, it recovered within weeks. No key members of his administration resigned, even though there were rumors that some were on the brink of doing so. The Republican Party never came close to disowning Trump, even though several prominent figures condemned his comments.

The lack of a more fundamental break from Trump, Lichtman contended, "demonstrates the extent to which Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party."

The horror at what happened in Charlottesville may have energized Trump's opponents, but that is cold comfort to those, like Beirich, who fear the continued influence of white supremacists and antisemites.

"To me, the real tragedy here is you never expected, in modern America, to see the rise of racist forces like this. There might be mobilization against it - but it shouldn't exist in the first place."

Charlottesville also showed just how fast the ground was shifting in American politics and how certain views once viewed as beyond the pale were becoming less taboo. That process has not ended.

At the start of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump ignited a firestorm by alleging that Mexico was "sending ... rapists" across the southern border.

This past weekend, the former president alleged that the United States was being "poisoned" by illegal immigrants.

His comments barely caused a stir.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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