Just after midnight on Nov. 4, 2008, the U.S.’s first African-American President-elect stood in Chicago’s Grant Park with a challenge to the country: “If there is anyone out there,” Barack Obama said, “who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
But it was just one answer, to be followed by many more from all quarters, including precincts that once kept their poisons private. This is a story as old as America itself, this serial reckoning with the dreams of our founders, and our record in living up to them. Ours is still an imperfect union, bound by the belief that we can always do better.
Those who lit the torches in Charlottesville reject both voters and Presidents of all shades other than white, and so they came to “take our country back.” This was not the first violent nationalist clash, but it was destructive and deadly, widely seen and shared, and it comes at a moment when you can practically feel underfoot the hardening soil of our common ground. The motley fascists and their extended klan could hardly have picked a more storied stage than Thomas Jefferson’s temple of enlightenment, the University of Virginia, nor a more perfect sword than flagpoles, weaponizing the very pillars that hold up our national ideals. And even as activists looked for more Confederate statues to pull down, and the so-called alt-right promised more torches, more marches, more mayhem, it felt like an awakening, and a time for everyone to take a side.
Having long petted and pampered the demons of racial politics, President Trump should have known his response would get maximum attention. Most successful leaders, certainly most Presidents, preach an American gospel about freedom, justice, imagination, ambition. They invoke enduring values in the service of both achieving goals and healing wounds. But that is not this President’s liturgy. Instead of summoning our better angels, he strums deep chords of grievance and resentment: The world is not a community; it’s a business. If you’re not winning, you’re losing. And anyone who invests in a common good or a shared sacrifice is a sucker.
Trump delights in deriding those who displease him; he can hurl lightning bolts with a single tweet. Yet the wan flickers of disapproval he expressed from his golf club over the weekend signaled the opposite of outrage, and his rebuke on Aug. 14 of the KKK and neo-fascists looked like a hostage video. On Aug. 15, he appeared more authentically appalled by the counterprotesters, more concerned about the “very fine people” objecting to statues being removed than the woman who was killed. Past Presidents risked everything to fight the Nazis; this one provided them cover.
The country would have to look elsewhere for moral leadership and practical guidance. Both the event and the President’s response brought swift and sharp reactions from right and left, from Republican leaders and lawmakers, from clerics and scholars and CEOs. On the Monday after the Charlottesville violence, a crowd in Durham, N.C., toppled the bronze Confederate Soldiers Monument in what they called an “emergency protest.” The mayor of Baltimore ordered that Confederate monuments disappear overnight, while statues were vandalized in cities from Louisville, Ky., to Tampa. As photos of the Charlottesville violence spread on social media, families erupted in their own civil wars: a North Dakota father said his youngest son, identified as a white nationalist, “is not welcome at our family gatherings any longer.” Facebook deleted Unite the Right’s event page.
Across the divide, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer vowed to return to Charlottesville — “There is no way in hell that I am not going back,” he said — while former Klan leader David Duke praised Trump for his “honesty & courage.” A White Lives Matter rally scheduled for Texas A&M was canceled out of concern for the safety of the community, but a group called Patriot Prayer has a permit for a protest in San Francisco on Aug. 26, a No to Marxism in America rally is planned in Berkeley, Calif., and other groups promised more and bigger gatherings to come. One Florida lawyer who attended the Charlottesville rally says he plans to run for U.S. Senate.
That much of the battle is focused on the past is fitting, even though this fight is about the future. Throughout our history, America has run on the voltage generated by competing ideas, the enduring debate over the proper balance between liberty and security, equality and opportunity, individual rights and the common good. No king, no council of elders, dictated an American belief system: we are united by our right to pursue happiness in every manner that does not get in each other’s way. That raucous American argument has been eagerly joined by generations of immigrants seeking the freedom to carve their own destiny, sharpened by the ideas of rebels and visionaries and misfits who have Made America Great, over and over again.
But all that fervor and friction, even as they lifted America from a clumsy collection of mismatched colonies to a global political and economic superpower, still required a shared embrace of those inalienable rights, above all the sanctity of freedom and ideal of equality. That’s the power and the price of being a country defined not by a faith or a race or an ethnic heritage but by an idea. And it is fundamental American ideas that Trump has ducked from the start, tapping instead the tribal power of the arrogant and the aggrieved, emboldening racists who want to claim him as their champion and activating a resistance that sees him giving cover to a rising threat from those who aspire to “take our country back.”
The divisions are now as physical as they are emotional and intellectual: in the 2016 election, of America’s 3,113 counties, just 303 went to either candidate by 10 points or fewer; 1,196 saw landslides of 50 points or more. We have self-sorted into private pockets of affirmation, and where we live shapes what we believe. “These days, Democrats and Republicans no longer stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas,” argues Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center. “Many in each party now deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but alien tribes.”
During his campaign, Trump engaged and inspired millions of voters who had given up on government and were desperate for a new vision, a new voice. Their needs are real and urgent, and have been largely ignored as the President reduced the office to a vanity plate. He has shown how little loyalty he feels to friends and allies who honor some principle higher than his self-interest. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, we saw the reverse: we saw his reluctance to turn away from people who admire him, claim him, even if they do so in the name of beliefs that Americans have died fighting to defeat. There will be more marches, more clashes and, if the white supremacist leaders are right, more lives lost before this latest battle for the nation’s soul resolves. But it is a historic shame and sorrow that so few Americans can come to that struggle with the faith that their President is on their side.
This appears in the August 28, 2017 issue of TIME.
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