The Striking Parallels Between the Assaults on Charlottesville and the CapitolRoundup
tags: Charlottesville, White Supremacy, Capitol Riot
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She co-hosts the history podcast Past Present and This Day in Esoteric Political History.
Wednesday's violent insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington, DC -- as horrifyingly unprecedented as it was -- also had a quality that we've experienced repeatedly over the past four years: It was both shocking and surreal, and yet eerily familiar and entirely predictable. The scenes playing out at the Capitol echoed those that took place in Charlottesville in August of 2017, which I witnessed in-person and later reported on, following a known pattern of right-wing political unrest that has been nurtured by the President and his party.
The parallels between the assaults on Charlottesville and the Capitol were striking: the hesitance of law enforcement to engage White, right-wing protesters (and their delay in doing so), the turn in right-wing media to the bogeyman of antifa as the source of disorder, the President's efforts to excuse or embrace the violence of his supporters -- even as he urged them to go home, he said "We love you" (in a video later restricted by social media platforms for its obfuscation and reinforcement of debunked election lies).
But more than that, they were both marked by a pernicious both-sides-ism that has, over the past four years, corrupted every discussion of the violence and chaos that Donald Trump provokes, one encapsulated in the "very fine people on both sides" line but with a much longer history in America.
A few days after the violence in Charlottesville, Civil War historian Elizabeth Varon wrote about the false equivalence that for decades dominated the way most Americans talked about the Civil War: as a war in which both sides fought nobly on behalf of causes they deeply believed in, and at the end, laid down their arms and came back together as Americans. There were heroes on both sides, men on horseback deserving statues no matter how many people they enslaved or US soldiers they killed or insurrections they led.
It was a peace bought on the backs not only of the US soldiers who died but the millions of freed people forced into a system of segregation, theft and violence that persisted for nearly a century after the war.
Trump trotted out the same sort of false equivalence after the violence in Charlottesville. He praised enslaver and Confederate traitor Robert E. Lee, who he has repeatedly called a "great general." He insisted that the people who flocked to Charlottesville for an event organized by violent neo-Nazis, Klan members and racists were very fine people who were just there to protect Lee's statue, even though the night before the planned rally, they had marched on the grounds of the University of Virginia and attacked anti-fascist and anti-racist protesters there. And he turned antifa — anti-fascist organizers and protesters — into the right's new scapegoat.
We've seen over the past year how useful that scapegoat has been for a new era of false equivalence. "But what about antifa?" has been the response to nearly every act of right-wing violence since.
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