Why Charlottesville Changed Everything

Turn and face the strange

Politics Features Donald Trump
Why Charlottesville Changed Everything

“The ground has shifted.” Some variation of these four words are uttered at least once a week: Trump is bombing Kabul—the ground has shifted Trump just ate a live armadillo on America’s classroom—the ground has shifted. Trump just mortgaged his family to buy Chinese bonds—the ground has shifted. You get the picture. The members of the political press corps are constantly telling us there are Tremendous Changes Happening, Right Now.

There is a reason for this. Beltway TV shows gain viewers when there’s drama in the air. Change equals drama. So they claim change is in the cards every week. As a result, actual transformation is devalued. When real alterations do come, they arrive like an unannounced guest. But they come all the same.

Eleven days ago, two forces met around a statue, and an earthquake was sent back. This time, the ground really has shifted.

The true believers—the heroic left that we saw in Charlottesville, and the unspeakable right—have not changed their beliefs or politics. They remain what they are, what they have been. But the majority of the political class are shifting their pitch. These are people who would not shrug if the Himalayas rose up underneath their galas. But they are moving now.


Watch the media heads and the moment-by-moment trend watchers on the op-ed pages and think tanks. See what they did.

Washington Republicans, mostly craven, leapt in to criticize the man they had spent the last year enabling.

The corporate Dems also behaved differently after Charlottesville.

After Trump falsely told the world that the “alt-left” was responsible for the violence in Virginia, the Bernie-punching members of the Resistance started scrubbing their Twitter timelines for mentions of the phrase “alt-left.” They had used that term to slam Sanders voters since 2016. They could use it no longer. Other avenues were also closed to them. In the days after Charlottesville, the corporate Dems congratulated themselves on standing up to white supremacy. They passed around a self-congratulatory collage image of #TheResistance with all their well-funded group logos pasted in it.

One problem: the feel-good compilation didn’t contain any of the symbols of the groups who were literally on the ground in Charlottesville, the groups who actually stood in the way of the alt-right, such as the IWW, the DSA, and Black Lives Matter. The Washington centrists were not in Charlottesville. The left was. It was erasure in the most literal sense.

Why were the logos of the left associations not included? There are several explanations. These groups, and others like them, are authentic progressive organizations. Each of them is outside the mainstream of corporate-safe accountability. Each of them were doing real work. In this sense, they are an embarrassment to the centrist institutions. But these are not wholly satisfactory explanations. The answer is simpler: the centrists did not even conceive of a world where Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America could be even included in a progressive coalition of change. This points to a failure of imagination, and of understanding.


Which raises the question:

Why would the Republicans snark after Trump? Why would the corporate Dems, who have financial reasons to disavow the left, let themselves be held accountable by progressive positions?

The Republican denial of Trump does not mean they have discovered decency—they haven’t. What they have located is opportunity. They are vulnerable. Trump is vulnerable. The corporate Dems are vulnerable.

Whatever else you can say about the intelligence and empathy of the people in Washington, they are extremely woke about on at least one topic: their survival. Even people without principle can unite around the crucial matter of continued existence. After Virginia, the battle lines are clear. The corporate Dems can no longer pretend to resist, when they won’t stand—physically stand—against Nazis. And the Republican Party has banked for years on the dog whistle. The unspoken premise has been made very clear after Virginia: do you ride with Robert E. Lee or not? The GOP must disavow with all the fury of a manta ray fleeing a hot tub.

Anybody with the slightest knowledge of the world knows that Trump is a leaky ship on an unforgiving sea. But Washington folks, their antennae ever-inclined to the needs of power, were forever forgiving of the man’s bumbles. He had power, and that made him indispensable, and therefore eternally redeemable.

Every time Trump dropped bombs on someone, the pundits told us that this was a new Trump we were seeing. Every time a tragedy occurred, we were worshipfully informed that Trump “became President” in that moment. Last night, Tucker Carlson preached to his congregation of people who had fallen asleep in front of the TV. He said the President staring into the sun was actually Very Good. But Carlson is the last man tending the light. The political class is a canary in the coal mine, and if they are leaving, Trump is in serious trouble.

In an essay about why Trump can’t quit the alt-right, Matt Taibbi wrote this:

The mainstream GOP, whose institutional machinery Trump appropriated just long enough to win a national election, is long gone as an ally, its officials now fleeing the administration at top speed. The executive agencies, particularly the security services, are in open rebellion, leaking to newspapers every move the Trumps and their surrogates make. There’s no analog to this situation in American history – a presidential administration under prolonged siege by its own Cabinet agencies. Trump’s presidency looked like it would be reduced to a Gilligan’s Island of family members, in-laws, the white-power Rasputin Bannon, hired help like John Kelly, and whatever soon-to-be-disbarred lawyers they’ve been able to find to rack up billable hours stalling the boss’s multitudinous criminal and civil messes. He has virtually no political help anywhere outside the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump (as Taibbi wrote) “once specialized in moments like these.” He leveraged them, in the same way a drunk demands sober people soothe him into shutting up. Nobody is soothing him now.

Right now, Washington is watching the political feed as religiously as Depression-era stock brokers watched their office windows. The world has changed. Political animals know it in their bones, the way animals who survive tsunamis read the Earth and howl at the moon the day before the Richter scale goes hog-wild. You feel it. I feel it. Human affairs and nature have a weird rhyme, and the recent eclipse might as well have heralded a change in the sky and the earth. For a brief moment America turned off the light, and found itself shocked to see a difference.

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