WASHINGTON — Jamie Raskin was not at all surprised to see such vile sentiments expressed over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist rally took a violent and deadly turn.
“As a Jewish member of Congress you get treated to a cornucopia of extremist and anti-Semitic social media correspondence,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview. “I knew it was out there. The only amazing thing about the rally was that the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who showed up mostly did not bother to mask their identity.”
That was a sign to Raskin, a first-term congressman from Maryland, of a fringe element in American society that now feels emboldened to lash out in greater force than it has in decades.
But perhaps even more jarring for him was the reaction of US President Donald Trump, who, on multiple occasions since, has sought to equate the white nationalists with those who oppose them.
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent and nobody wants to say that but I’ll say it right now,” Trump said in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday, adding that there were also “very fine people on both sides.”
A signal, Raskin believes, has been sent. “The brazen assertion of moral equivalence between the two sides is a direct invitation to more neo-Nazi assembly,” he said.
“The problem with all of the president’s signals and then ear-piercing dog whistles is that it now invites repeat actions all over the country,” he went on. “David Duke and company are now set to stage fascist rallies in a neighborhood theater near you.”
Indeed, the so-called alt-right — a loose collection of far-right groups, including neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others — has rallies planned for at least nine American cities this Saturday.
Meanwhile, Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, has not been shy celebrating the president’s admonishment of the counter-protesters. In a tweet shortly after Trump’s now-infamous press conference on Tuesday, he thanked him for “his honesty and courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville.”
Trump’s first response on Saturday, after a 20-year-old man rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring at least 19 others, was to say “many sides” were at fault, while pointedly declining to even mention the racist hate groups that had organized the rally.
Two days later, he grudgingly did so, calling out the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, who played an outsize role in the demonstration, by name. But come Tuesday he doubled down on his original assessment and allocated equal blame to “both sides.”
Raskin, whose sister lives in Charlottesville, said that Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally, which was to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was the product of long-simmering discontent the president has galvanized.
“Donald Trump has been stoking white grievance and resentment for years now and what we saw in Charlottesville was a boiling cauldron of klansmen, skinheads, neo-Nazis and angry white nationalists,” Raskin said.
“This was the densest concentration of people who got the Steve Bannon message in the 2016 campaign,” he added, referring to the White House chief strategist, who used to run Breitbart News, an outlet that he himself once called “the platform of the alt-right.”
“Obviously, wherever fascists go, they’re going to attract huge numbers of non-violent protesters, but also some people who are driven to try to crush them,” he said. The neo-Nazis understand that perfectly well.”
“If they keep staging rallies like this, replete with violent altercations, and the president’s response is to place a gentle pox on both their houses, then it gives aid and comfort to the spread of more fascist ideas and gatherings.”