Charlottesville, Virginia, community members on August 16, 2017, leave candles and flowers at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson at a vigil for Heather Heyer. Photo: Reuters via Tim Dodson/The Cavalier Daily
Charlottesville, Virginia, community members on August 16, 2017, leave candles and flowers at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson at a vigil for Heather Heyer. Photo: Reuters via Tim Dodson/The Cavalier Daily

The recent incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, marks a “white nationalist” resurgence in the US. Taking the world by surprise, this Ku Klux Klan/neo-Nazi revival sits very awkwardly with America’s liberal image, yet it may be just the beginning.

Reeling from the shock, the average American is still trying to come to terms with the new reality of KKK members wearing the typical headgear and vowing to “take America back”. This metamorphosis is taking place even in top universities, where flyers are distributed by white-nationalist groups to organize rallies. Thought to be dead and buried in the 1960s, white nationalism has suddenly resurfaced, as if it was quietly embedded in the community, only waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself.

Condemning the incident, President Donald Trump attempted to balance the responsibility as he blamed everybody, “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides, it’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time.”

Failing to single out any specific group but instead blaming “many sides”, later he also said: “What about the alt-left that came charging at the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” He even stated that if statues of figures such as Confederate Army General Robert E Lee were removed, maybe those of the early US  presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington should be taken down as well.

Such remarks could be taken as encouragement by the white nationalist extremists who are openly claiming the Trump administration as “their government”; in fact, ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke thanked Trump for his honesty and courage on Twitter soon after these remarks.

Making things worse, Trump himself is being linked with white supremacists and criticized for not having responded strongly enough against racism as he avoided naming those responsible in the alt-right.

Meanwhile, three chief executives have quit Trump’s team of advisers at the White House Manufacturing Jobs Initiative out of embarrassment after the recent incidents, including the president of the Alliance of American Manufacturing.

Long considered by many to be the world’s most stable democracy, today the US is split in two and lurching toward the right. Documenting more than 900 active hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported: “The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year than in half a century.”

Ostensibly, Charlottesville is not an isolated incident but just the latest in a series of similar incidents that took place in Ferguson, Charleston, Dallas, St Paul, Baltimore, Baton Rouge and Alexandria. If not contained in future, the general breakdown in national unity might leave permanent scars.

Evaluating the crisis, security expert Keith Mines concluded some months back that the United States had a 60% chance of civil war over the next decade or so when asked by Foreign Policy. Back in the US  after 16 years in various conflict zones, he could see the telltale signs that give birth to a civil war, nowadays more like a shifting low-intensity conflict rather than a pitched battle.

Detailing it as large-scale violence with a total rejection of political authority, he explained that such incidents required emergency or martial law to contain them.

According to Mines, divisive press coverage, weakened state institutions, national polarization, lack of political responsibility and the legitimization of violence create an atmosphere conducive to civil war.

Commenting on the situation, Yale historian David Blight observed: “We know we are at risk of civil war, or something like it, when an election, an enactment, an event, an action by government or people in high places, becomes utterly unacceptable to a party, a large group, a significant constituency.”

The unsettling part is that several more such rallies are planned in the coming weeks – it might have been more suitable to ban such gatherings to reduce the risk factor.

Constantly multiplying, the most alarming factor is that hate groups in the US increased to 917 from 892 in 2016, according to a recent report by the SPLC, a legal advocacy organization based in Montgomery, Alabama.

Mainly motivated by anti-immigrant sentiments, more anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, white nationalist, neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate and black separatist organizations exist, with a 197 % increase in anti-Muslim groups that grew to 101 from 37 in just one year, according to the SPLC.

The SPLC hate map displays 1,372 “bias incidents” carried out in the first three months after Trump’s election, with a quarter of these motivated by anti-immigrant sentiments. Additionally, Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics suggest that hate crimes against Muslims grew by 67% between 2014 and 2015.

Considering all this information, it seems unlikely that the United States can remain a liberal country much longer.

Sabena Siddiqui

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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