What Happened in Charlottesville Is All Too American

“These people are not from here,” Rep. Thomas Garrett affirmed in the wake of an American Nazi and Klan rally that descended into smoke and violence in his Virginia congressional district on Saturday. “It blows my mind that this many racist bigots actually exist in this country.” White supremacists, he continued, do not reflect “who we are as Americans.”

It’s a little surprising that Garrett is surprised. Even as he spoke, a photograph circulated of the congressman meeting recently with Jason Kessler, a white supremacist from Charlottesville who organized the rally. The purpose of the meeting, Garrett’s office insisted, was unrelated to yesterday’s rally; the two men discussed a range of issues, including President Donald Trump’s anti-terrorism and immigration restriction initiatives.

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To be fair, Garrett might not perceive the tight spectrum that runs between between racialist policies and white supremacist violence. He may also genuinely believe that aggrieved white men marching in lock step by torchlight do not reflect “who we are as Americans.” Indeed, many public figures on both the left and right—people like Sally Yates, Tim Kaine and Ana Navarro, whose anti-racist and anti-fascist credentials are unimpeachable—echoed this well-meaning sentiment.

But as the historian and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb observed, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at #Charlottesville and say ‘This is not who we are.’” It is part of the myth of American Exceptionalism that blood and soil movements like Nazism are foreign to the United States—that jackbooted fascism of the variety that infects democratic institutions is an invasive weed that can be easily plucked out of our national garden.

To affirm that this is not who we are, one has to erase the history of American race relations from our very recent,…

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