Nearly alone among the nation’s elected leaders, President Trump saw a nobility of purpose in the fiery procession that began a weekend of street fights in Charlottesville, Va. White nationalists hoisted tiki torches that recalled the horrifying imagery of the Ku Klux Klan. They revived an old Nazi chant–“Blood and Soil”–which had been silenced in 1945 with American blood on German soil. And they mixed in a new anti-Semitic taunt, “Jews will not replace us,” meant to declare unity of the white race.
But to the President, those details did not tell the whole story. Marching with the racists, fascists and separatists, he argued, were some “very fine people” with a worthy mission. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said on Aug. 15 at a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower. “Not all of those people were white supremacists. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”
The Confederate general has sat on his horse in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) since 1924, when monuments were going up across the South in celebration of post-Reconstruction revival amid the ongoing injustice of Jim Crow segregation. To Trump, calls for the statue’s removal were the start of a slippery slope that threatened to undermine the nation’s history and culture. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” he asked reporters at the event, conflating the nation’s founders with rebels who fought to divide it. “You really do have to ask yourself, Where does it stop?”
That is a question many Americans found themselves asking in the days after the violent melees claimed the life of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, and injured more than 30 others. In the face of a fatal riot instigated by bigots–the largest demonstration of white power in at least a decade–here was a President defending the gathering, legitimizing a hateful ideology in the process. He decried racism and bigotry, but also blamed liberal counterprotesters, some of whom had come armed with sticks and mace, as equally culpable for the violence. Then he alleged a conspiracy in the press to avoid naming all the aggressors. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he said. “Nobody wants to say that, but I will say it right now.”
The off-the-cuff press conference didn’t just throw a wrench in the weary White House damage-control operation. It swept away any lingering delusions that Trump will harness the high office to unify a bitterly divided country. American Presidents have often sought to seize the aftermath of a national tragedy to rally the nation together and point us beyond our history. This is the impulse that guided Ronald Reagan after the Challenger explosion, Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, George W. Bush after Sept. 11 and Barack Obama after the Charleston church shooting. But that is not Trump. Asked whether he would heed presidential custom by visiting the site of the tragedy, Trump replied that he owned a very large winery near Charlottesville.
His response was panned as a missed opportunity and massive error, not just by his foes but by scores of Republicans. It led Trump on Aug. 16 to preemptively dissolve two separate advisory councils of top CEOs after a string of resignations. But his stance was no accident. It was a reminder that in some ways, Trump sees the world in the same us-against-them tones that inform his most racist supporters. Throughout his business career, he used racial and ethnic divisions to his advantage. He sees the cultural norms that seek to minimize racial strife as “politically correct” barriers to free expression. Trump declared during the presidential campaign that an American with Mexican-born parents could not fairly adjudicate a case in which Trump was a party because of his immigration policies. On the campaign trail, he recited lyrics to a song that compared Muslim refugees to venomous snakes. Now, in the Oval Office, he is using the pulpit to tolerate and fan tribal grievance.
In the immediate aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Trump pledged to “heal the wounds of our country.” Less than 48 hours later, he called reporters who asked about his refusal to specifically condemn the racism “truly bad people.” And he lashed out at others who came forward to criticize him. Trump’s longtime political Svengali Roger Stone has a maxim: “Politics is not about uniting people,” he told the New Yorker in 2008. “It’s about dividing people. And getting your 51%.”
That is not so far from the methods and goals of a revitalized white-nationalist movement, which sees in Trump a welcome partner. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, whose current ambition, like many at the rally, is the creation of an all-white American ethnostate.
If there is a central theme to Trump’s first months in office, it has been his inability to adapt his demagogic impulses to his vast new responsibilities. At times, he will contain those instincts at the advice of his aides. Two days after the violence in Charlottesville, he stood before a teleprompter in the basement of the White House with a clear message of blame. “Racism is evil,” he declared with the enthusiasm of a hostage victim. But such staged moments rarely last; hours later he tweeted regrets, writing that his critics “will never be satisfied.” Then, just days after vehicular terrorism in Charlottesville killed a young woman, the President retweeted a photo of a train running over a man with the CNN logo on his face. (He later deleted it.)
All of which delights the angry white torchbearers. The new faces of American hate are now more likely to be a college-educated Internet trolls than goose-stepping skinheads. Instead of robes or hoods, they favor natty suits and New Balance sneakers, white polos and khaki pants. Dubbed the alt-right, they are a constellation of groups that organize online, delight in ironic and coded forms of communication, and typically have little actual influence outside of anonymous message boards and the comments section of revisionist YouTube videos that declare Adolf Hitler’s greatness.
Among this new racist right inspiration often comes from European fascist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece, the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement and the ultranationalist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin’s. Their anger is directed at what they see as the dwindling fortunes of the white working class in America–an idea that the President has homed in on as well.
Charlottesville was meant as a coming-out party for this loose collection of furies, and in that narrow way it was a success. Even in its wake, the organizers were denying that they had anything to do with the racist terrorism of the past. When Trump finally called out some of the groups that wreaked havoc in the leafy college town, members of the movement wrote off the rebuke as meant for others. “Perfect!” wrote a prominent white-nationalist YouTube broadcaster who evangelizes under the Twitter name Wife With a Purpose. “Since the Alt Right and #UniteTheRight are neither Nazis, KKK or white supremacists, there’s no issue then.” This same activist has issued a national “white baby challenge,” arguing that increased Caucasian fertility is the best way to fight “black ghetto culture.”
The themes that protesters pointed to were often ones that Trump has harped on. Many said they were radicalized in recent years by the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests spawned by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, which catalyzed a kind of status anxiety. According to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll from the spring, 28% of the country believes that whites losing out because of minority preferences is a bigger problem than minorities losing out because of white preferences. Among those who “strongly approve” of Trump, 46% say that whites losing out is the bigger concern. “It was inevitable that it would finally dawn on whites that we are being dismantled,” says Jared Taylor, head of the white-nationalist group American Renaissance. “We don’t wish to be replaced.”
The rally in Charlottesville, called Unite the Right, was organized by Jason Kessler, a native of the city who runs an obscure group called Unity and Security for America, which advocates for immigration policies that favor whites. Among the allies on the ground were Vanguard America, which calls itself the “face of American fascism” and traffics in slogans like Free yourself, White Man. There were representatives from Identity Evropa, which espouses white separatism; members of the Traditionalist Worker Party, which is led by white supremacist Matthew Heimbach and runs candidates for local office; and representatives from the League of the South, who brandished Confederate flags.
For this network of white grievance, Trump has been a godsend. “Finally someone at the level of presidential politics is speaking their language,” explains Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “This was a providential deliverance. He mobilized them in a way that has no precedent.”
Racial politics have always been central to Trump’s brand. By late 2015, when he had taken the lead in Republican polls, he credited his rise to two issues that spoke directly to the concerns of white nationalists: immigration and Islamic terrorism. “I felt it like I do deals,” he bragged that year, describing his sense for the fears and anger of his voters. “Immigration has boiled over into Syria.” Throughout his campaign, his method was to use racial anxieties to his advantage, while periodically offering vague condemnations of racism. As Kessler put it, Trump “appeals to white people because we feel like we can compete and have a good shot at the American Dream when we don’t have things like affirmative action or illegal immigration holding us back and stacking the game against us.”
Trump’s main selling point was a pledge to demolish the accepted barriers of political conduct. “We have to be mean now,” he would say. That meanness often overlapped with messages of white-nationalist groups that argue that there are essential differences among races that make a diverse society unworkable. In early January 2016, at a rally in Iowa, Trump debuted a new feature of his stump speech, reading the lyrics of a 1960s pop song called “The Snake,” which Trump turned into an allegory for the danger posed by Muslim immigration. The point of the story is that there was something fundamentally malicious about snakes, and by extension Muslims. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in,” the snake tells a “tenderhearted woman” at the narrative’s climax, after he has given her a “vicious bite.”
Flirting with the fringes of the racist right became a running theme. When asked about the support of former KKK leader Duke by CNN, Trump declined to distance himself for several days. When he later retweeted a racist meme with false statistics about black crime rates against whites, he refused to correct the information. “It’s for other people,” he told TIME. “Let them find out if it’s correct or not.”
At other times, he retweeted supporters who openly espoused white-nationalist beliefs, only to have his staff members claim that he had no idea who they were. Asked by TIME in 2015 if his campaign rhetoric could lead to innocent people getting hurt, Trump responded with a sense of victimization similar to what drove so many young men to march in Charlottesville. “People are getting hurt far greater,” he responded, “than something I am going to say.”
Trump’s behavior marks a major break from traditional Republican conservatism. For two generations, most Republicans labored to maintain distance from the party’s extremists. The past four popularly elected Republican Presidents all recognized in deeply personal terms how damaging the Birchers or the Bannonites could be–not only to their careers but also their cause. Traditional conservatism, the kind championed by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, emphasizes individual liberty, equality and economic mobility. “The relationship between Trump and the GOP has always been awkward,” says Republican strategist Alex Conant. “Most GOP members of Congress are lifelong Republicans and movement conservatives. Trump is neither.”
Which is what cheers the racist right. “Conservatism is committing suicide. I think it has no relevance,” Richard Spencer, one of the organizers of the torch march, told TIME last year. “I care about real stuff. I care about identity.” Although he didn’t see Trump as “racially conscious,” Spencer says now there is a connection between his group and the President “on this kind of psychic level.”
White House staff members winced when the President seemed to defend such forces. Some were quick to tell reporters that the boss had been freelancing, off message. But others dispatched talking points to fellow Republicans so that the party could defend his words. “The President was entirely correct,” the guidance read. “Both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility.”
You could intuit the GOP’s reaction from the way that new White House chief of staff John Kelly hung his head in the corner of the Trump Tower lobby as the President spoke. “I don’t understand what’s so hard about this. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn’t be defended,” fumed Congressman Steve Stivers of Ohio, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Mr. President, we must call evil by its name,” tweeted Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, Stivers’ counterpart in the Senate. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
The question now is what the cost of all this will be–for Trump, his party and the nation itself. The GOP has condemned Trump before. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a former Republican vice-presidential nominee, called Trump’s attacks on a Hispanic judge “sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.” When Trump won the election anyway, most of the party calculated it was better to offer grudging support than risk defying a new President with a fervent base. Trump’s polls may be falling, but he has yet to suffer a lasting penalty for his decision to legitimize right-wing extremism in the country.
–With reporting by ZEKE J. MILLER/WASHINGTON
This appears in the August 28, 2017 issue of TIME.