Charlottesville And American Authoritarianism

Fascism is always waiting for its moment.
White supremacists march with Tiki torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White supremacists march with Tiki torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I spent election night 2008 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’d lived for the past six years. There was a lot to love about the town ― the music scene was loud, the swimming holes were clear and cold, the rent was $250 a month.

Politics, however, were a problem. My friends were embarrassed by Charlottesville’s role in national affairs. Less than two years earlier, our congressman, Virgil Goode, had shocked much of the country by publicly denouncing the election of Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison to Congress, on the grounds that Ellison was a practicing Muslim.

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America,” Goode wrote in a letter to hundreds of Virginia voters.

In the months that followed, Goode’s office on the downtown mall was intermittently deluged by various protesters ― people angry about his letter and about the Iraq War he supported. He quickly transformed into a minor national figure. The anti-war group Code Pink showed up. People in town were excited by the the rush of attention, but most tried not to get their hopes up. Every two years, the city of Charlottesville voted against Goode by at least a 2-to-1 margin, but he’d been heading back to Washington for more than a decade anyway.

The lines of Charlottesville’s congressional district were drawn to neutralize the city’s predictably liberal voting habits. The district runs north in a narrow strip almost to Maryland and stretches south to the North Carolina border, where it fans out across Danville, Martinsville and well into the Blue Ridge Mountains. On a map, the district’s outline looks a little bit like the Loch Ness monster emerging from the water. The last time a Republican presidential candidate failed to carry the district had been in 1968, when it went to the segregationist George Wallace, running on the American Independent ticket. Not that the problem was partisan: Goode himself had served two terms in Congress as a Democrat before switching parties.

So the night of Nov. 4, 2008, was special. The town broke almost 80-20 for Barack Obama, and the only person (very slightly) more popular on the ballot than the first black president was a young man named Tom Perriello, who had decided to take on Goode in a long-shot bid for Congress. The 15,908 votes that Charlottesville delivered to Perriello were just enough to put him over the top, and the downtown mall that night was wild with celebration. Champagne corks flew as overjoyed young activists and graying hippies toasted each other until late. People danced, cheered, screamed and openly wept.

I worked at a financial news and data company. One of my bosses ― not exactly a radical ― was irrepressibly exultant in the office the next day. “It’s like you can feel the darkness passing away,” he told a few of us. And it was hard to disagree. The Bush years had been one long, fumbling nightmare from Iraq to Katrina to Lehman Brothers. All of that was over now, we thought. The country had finally had enough.

It had not. In the wake of the armed takeover of the town by Nazis and neo-Confederates this weekend, I like to think that in 2008 we were not so much naive as overly optimistic. You could not live in Charlottesville or attend the University of Virginia without confronting a host of demons that were much easier to ignore in the comfortable suburb where I grew up. The giant statue of Robert E. Lee glowering over Lee Park off the mall was not a secret. We were all appalled by Virgil Goode’s language, but like most of America, the town’s neighborhoods remained functionally segregated. Well-to-do white families kept their kids away from public schools. The downtown mall ― the place where we rummaged through used-book stores and rallied with Tom Perriello ― was built on the site of the historically black Vinegar Hill neighborhood, bulldozed decades earlier in the name of progress.

My UVA bioethics professor liked to joke that libertarianism was the unofficial political philosophy of the student body. But most UVA kids tended to support laissez-faire only so long as it rested on a solid foundation of oppression. In 2003, when sophomore Daisy Lundy was poised to become the school’s first black student council president, she was attacked by a man who reportedly told her “nobody wants a n****r to be president.” Confederate flags were not an uncommon sight on the grounds, and Halloween blackface scandals at fraternities were a subject of debate, rather than official University penalties.

UVA’s give-and-take between small-government conservatism and racial dominance politics reflects the peculiarities not of Virginia or the South, but of the nation itself. In his 2015 book Liberty and Coercion, Cambridge University historian Gary Gerstle argues that conservative enthusiasm for limited government has often relied upon, and obscured, a separate tradition of American authoritarianism. Paeans to Lockean liberalism are commonly deployed to keep federal officials from interfering with state-level repression, from the legal support for slavery to the public brutalities of Bull Connor. Early Supreme Court decisions did not even recognize the Bill of Rights as a check on state governments.

Local communities have devised their own authoritarian solutions. In the 1920s, around when the Lee statue was dedicated in Charlottesville, the Ku Klux Klan saw a shocking resurgence not only in the American South, but across Ohio and Indiana. In Oklahoma, the Klan’s dominant influence in the state legislature led to the impeachment of a governor. In town after town, the Klan established control over daily life, policing interracial marriage, driving immigrants out of town and violently regulating crop shipments in an effort to boost prices for local farmers. For many communities, the group was not a terrorist organization, but simply the government itself ― a frightening precedent for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s acknowledgement that state police were outgunned by the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville Saturday.

This authoritarian impulse has never been fully vanquished. But it is not the only American political tradition. As Ganesh Sitaraman details wonderfully in The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, since the country’s founding, other patriots have battled to expand the bonds of citizenship and shared prosperity to an ever-broader political community. This was hard work, and the gains have been fragile, halting and incomplete. But they have been real. And they have, at times, forced authoritarianism to the fringes of political legitimacy.

In 1992 and 1996, Pat Buchanan ran presidential campaigns that trafficked in the same ugliness of Donald Trump’s 2016 run ― but he failed to emerge as a serious national contender. The difference between the two men is not simply one of personality or celebrity. Something in America broke during the intervening years, and allowed the darker forces of our history to overwhelm our better political movements.

It will be difficult to repair. But there is reason for hope, even among so much political wreckage. Charlottesville is a symbol of our difficult, ongoing national project, and despite the current authoritarian momentum, the city is continuing to try to come to terms with its history. A democratically elected city council voted to remove the Lee statue, with prompting from a black city council member. Friday night, as local police allowed torchbearers free rein over UVA, a few dozen students gathered around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, symbolically protecting what is good in the legacy of that profoundly flawed American icon. Unfurling a banner that read “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy,” they were literally surrounded by an angry mob brandishing fire and chanting a Third Reich slogan. That bravery can’t be erased. And it demonstrated to the world at least one American tradition worth defending.

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