When does a fringe movement stop being fringe?

Vann R. Newkirk II writes: Suddenly, the “far right” doesn’t seem so far. On Friday night, hundreds of protesters descended on a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. Carrying tiki torches, waving Confederate battle flags, and sometimes armed with clubs and shields and flanked by self-styled militiamen with heavier arms, the protesters, described by many as “white nationalists,” brawled with counter-protesters in Charlottesville streets, a situation that led Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency Saturday.

Still, the fallout, the latest in a year-long series of growing protests centered around that statue in Emancipation Park, sprawled into Saturday afternoon. A car plowed through a group of counter-protesters, who’d taken the streets to celebrate their perceived victory against the white-supremacist protesters. So far, reports indicate at least one person has died, and many more are injured. Officials have not yet said if they think the incident was deliberate.

Even before that most deadly incident, politicians responded to the crisis in Charlottesville. House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Twitter that “the views fueling the spectacle in Charlottesville are repugnant,” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted that “the hate and bigotry witnessed in Charlottesville does not reflect American values.” In a statement Saturday morning, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe stated that he was “disgusted by the hatred, bigotry, and violence these protesters have brought to our state.” President Donald Trump has tweeted multiple times about the protests, and in a statement after the deadly car incident condemned violence “on many sides.”

These reactions, after a year of burgeoning demonstrations in the park, are remarkable both in their alarm and their vagueness.

Trump’s statements call out “many sides” for their contribution to violence. McAuliffe’s statement, especially, reads as if there’s something alien or novel about violent white pro-Confederate protest in Virginia—which, it can be said with confidence, is simply not true. Few notable statements from public officials put a name to the general “bigotry” that most leaders cited.

Journalists have also struggled with categorizing what’s happening in Charlottesville. Ever since the alt-right leader Richard Spencer first led groups of protesters in Emancipation Park against the prospective removal of the Lee statue, outlets have adopted his “white nationalist” label—one often used by members of his particular portion of the alt-right movement as a way to avoid the negative connotations of “white supremacist”—as a descriptor for the protests.

But the protesters, which now boast the endorsement of Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the participation of Klansmen and Neo-Nazis—some armed and chanting “Jews will not replace us”—appear to be exactly the kind of mob that the term “white supremacist” evokes in its most commonly used connotation. [Continue reading…]

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