14 Aug 2017

Jared Sexton: Trump gave racism new life

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:14 pm on 14 August 2017
Emergency services assist victims after a car ploughed into them, killing one woman and injuring 19 others

Emergency services assist victims after a car ploughed into them, killing one woman and injuring 19 others Photo: AFP

A woman was killed and 19 people injured when a car ploughed into a crowd of anti-racism counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last week.

US president Donald Trump is facing harsh criticism for not explicitly condemning the white supremacist movement.

While Trump may not have created this racist anger, he has surely emboldened it, says journalist and author Jared Sexton.

We spoke to Jared Sexton on this last month, and check in with him again on how he believes Trump has stoked the embers of hate.

Sexton says he was not surprised at what happened in Charlottesville as he's seen this anger “cooking up” at the rallies and events he attended during Trump's campaign, particularly among people who identified themselves as white nationalists or white supremacists.

“I had a feeling that some point or other we were going to see blood shed. I was disappointed, but I can’t say that I was surprised.”

At the centre of the clash was the proposed removal of a statue memorialising the Confederacy’s top general Robert E Lee.

Many statues of Confederate leaders were erected during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s as symbols of communities taking a stand against that movement and its leaders, and there has been a lot of debate about what to do with them, Sexton says.

“The Confederate past is something that a lot of people hold on to with a lot of pride, but was, in fact, an insurrection against the country. So each time that either the Confederate flag gets removed or these memorials, we have these flashpoints where groups – particularly white supremacists – who hold these leaders sacrosanct, they react to it violently and come together in a show of support for the Confederacy.”

Sexton sees the battle lines drawn between people who believe in a ‘white genocide’ in which the perceived power of white Americans is being restricted and on the other side, people who believe in the march of progress in history and politics.

“When they meet together and they start battling over how society is supposed to move forward, it is a battle between the past and the future.”

Jared Sexton

Jared Sexton Photo: Columbia Journalism Review

Trump is walking a tightrope between these two sides because his success in the presidential race was in part due to his ability to play on racist tendencies, Sexton says.

“He has basically taken a very angry white minority of this country and has cobbled together a base from them.

“He’s not in a position where he can outwardly repudiate these people. He has to rely on their votes. He has to be able to talk to them and whistle to them and let them know that they still have his support, just like he wants their support.

“We needed a president to say white supremacists and neo-Nazis are not welcome in this country and they’re offensive, and instead he sort of skirted around the issue.

“We have a growing strain of fascism in this country and ignoring it is not going to make it go away.”

Whether sense will prevail after Charlottesville or things will get worse, Sexton is not sure.

Many die-hard Conservative Trump supporters are ready for more violence, but more traditional Conservatives seem to be waking up to the danger of the situation, he says.

“It’s my hope that the Conservative movement inside the country will condemn this and will work to keep this from happening in the future, but the die-hard base has definitely not turned their back on him.”

Jared Sexton's book The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage is due out in September.

Get the new RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)