The “Unite the Right” rally that occurred in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when I was the city’s mayor, was the most vivid instance of the battle between civil governance and political violence that is the heart of the Trump era. In the end, the event, which left Heather Heyer dead at the hands of a young neo-Nazi who plowed his car into a crowd of activists, was a coordinated invasion by right-wing paramilitary groups bent on conflict with left-wing protesters and on intimidating a progressive city committed to racial and social justice.
During the event, hundreds of armed white nationalists clashed with activists on the campus of the University of Virginia, and then on Charlottesville’s quaint streets, flummoxing state and local police forces, as a worried nation watched, and as President Trump afterward made his notorious comment that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
The rally was a call to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and, more broadly, to celebrate white nationalism. It was of, by, and for political violence. One of the plotters wrote in a private chat, “The age of ultraviolence is coming. I don’t know when, but I do know that most of you will live to see it. There is rapidly approaching a time when in every white Western city, corpses will be stacked in the streets as high as men can stack them.” Another posted on The Daily Stormer, “Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”
They arrived in paramilitary groups, treating the city as territory to occupy. They unloaded from rented buses, in formation, festooned with uniforms and regalia, shields and helmets, armed with assault rifles. They deployed to specific areas under formal command structures. One planner bragged about what unfolded afterward as the militias—The Workers Party, League of the South, NSM, and other Nationalist Front groups—joined together “to help create two shield walls” for “the fight.” He explained that his “fighters” “had our positions amply covered.”
Meanwhile, an electronic war was being waged as well, with the city’s systems crashing to a halt under cyber-attack, and local left-wing activists relentlessly “doxed” by the alt-right, in an all-out example of what scholars Emily Blout and Patrick Burkart deem “immersive terrorism” in a forthcoming issue of Studies of Conflict and Terrorism.
It would come to light later how, and why, the Trump Administration enabled the events of Charlottesville. White nationalists were part of his political coalition, after all; he was not going to alienate them by deeming them potential domestic terrorists.
A New York Times Magazine cover article by Janet Reitman provided clear evidence that the FBI had removed white nationalists from the scope of potential domestic terrorists. She reported that federal agencies were focused instead only on “strident rhetoric around ‘foreign-born’ terrorists”—particularly under the Trump Administration. Peter Singer, a national security expert, recalled meeting with a group of senior Trump Administration officials on the issue of counterterrorism. “They only wanted to talk about Muslim extremism,” he said.
These revelations were reinforced recently by senior DHS Trump official Stephanie Neumann, who revealed, “If we use the term ‘domestic terrorism’ or we talk about the white supremacist language, that seems to derail things at the White House.”
She observed a direct correlation between Trump’s coddling, incendiary approach to white nationalism and increasing attacks from them: “We have the president not only pretty much refusing to condemn, but throwing fuel on the fire, creating opportunities for more recruitment through his rhetoric.” There was a direct link to Charlottesville. Unite the Right leader Richard Spencer later told The Atlantic, “There is no question that Charlottesville wouldn’t have occurred without Trump . . . The alt-right found something in Trump. He changed the paradigm and made this kind of public presence of the alt-right possible.” Some who invaded were even wearing bright-red MAGA hats.
After the rally, Moonshot CVE, an organization working to combat extremist violence, tracked an 1,800 percent increase in Internet searches indicating a desire to kill Jewish Americans, a 200 percent increase in searches for killing ethnic minorities, a 40 percent increase for killing African Americans, and an 800 percent increase in how to join the KKK.
Soon after the rally, I led the city to join with Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection to sue the militias under an innovative legal theory. Virginia, and almost every other state, has laws on the books making such extra-legal militias, in fact, illegal. The lawsuit, which included both far-right and far-left militias, was successful, leading to binding consent decrees forbidding the militias from attacking the city again.
These steps have become necessary because, it turns out, democracy depends on the foundation of a stable state underlying it. And the state, in turn, as Max Weber famously observed, depends on a monopoly of legitimate political violence. Any political violence that assumes the mantle of legitimately dangerously erodes the foundation of our freedoms.
Our sitting President has a penchant toward violence, and he has paramilitary forces under his command. As President, he urged rioters bearing weapons in several states with stay-at-home orders: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!; LIBERATE MINNESOTA!; LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” After George Floyd’s death, he threatened, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He signaled support for Kenosha vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse.
And he deployed Department of Homeland Security forces (among others) to Portland and Minneapolis and to violently “clear” Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. He was able to do this because these forces were directly under the control of his attorney general, not the Joint Chiefs of Staff at main Pentagon, who are governed, among others, by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act that prevents the military from involvement in domestic law enforcement (not to mention the Uniform Code of Military Justice which requires troops to disobey illegal orders).
In parallel, unaffiliated paramilitary groups in violent support of Trump and Trumpism are metastasizing from the early tumor of Charlottesville: the Boogaloo Bois, the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, and the motorcycle gangs Trump has proudly said would protect him. (“I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”)
We saw in Charlottesville the damage an overt attack can inflict. But the mere existence of unaffiliated militia groups roaming brazenly across all platforms, real and virtual, intimidates and violates and erodes the state itself.
With the precedent of Charlottesville, these groups are poised for more violence in service of Trump’s diktats. Miles Taylor, the former senior DHS Trump official, recently described the net effect of these violent groups as “beyond a powder keg. This is the Titanic with powder kegs filled all the way to the hull.”
They are enabled by Trump’s base, stoked by Trump himself. A June 2019 poll reported in Foreign Affairs, found that only 40 percent of Trump supporters expect him to defer to the military in matters of military policy. Two prominent Iraq war veterans, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, wrote Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley a letter in mid-August, stating, “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order.”
The storm is not only gathering. It may have started. The Carnegie Institute’s Rachel Kleinfeld, an authority on political violence around the world, recently wrote in The Washington Post of the potential for widespread political violence: “The United States is now walking the last steps on that path.” Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen recently concluded that America has entered a state of “incipient insurgency” resembling Colombia, Libya, and Iraq, including escalating gun sales; rhetoric dehumanizing political opponents; and violent political demonstrations (in June, 17 by right-wing militant groups, one sparking violence; in July, 160, with violence in 18).
In the last Federalist Paper #85, Alexander Hamilton urged Americans to “put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy . . . and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagogue.” As Charlottesville makes clear, this despotism can come in many forms. We must now take firm steps to reinforce the unthinkable: the legitimacy of America’s very state. We need to crush paramilitary groups, crack down on political violence across the ideological spectrum, reinforce America’s apolitical, civilian-run military (and reeducate all Americans about its Constitutional purpose), as well as restore the deliberative center without which American democracy cannot succeed in its core mission of enabling conflicting factions to function in a common enterprise.
History illuminates the alternative.