After Trump again embraced white identity politics, Charlottesville the scene of a far-right murder two years ago fears racial tensions could explode again
If Donald Trumps racist diatribe against four congresswomen of colour was intended to animate his most loyal supporters, it seemed to have worked with Clark Smith.
Mr Trump didnt say anything all, the 58-year-old said. Hes an extremely un-racist person and I sincerely mean that. Hes not stoking any racial resentment. The Democrats are. They are all about identity politics. Mr Trump doesnt care about race, he doesnt care about religion. He cares about America.
Smith lives just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that knows the consequences of the presidents race-baiting better than any other. It was here, nearly two years ago, that a march by white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members brandishing shields, clubs and guns, ostensibly to defend a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, led to violent clashes and the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Trumps claim that there had been very fine people on both sides was a comment that will live in infamy. This week he did it again, tweeting that progressive congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib should go back to their countries. Then, at a rally on Wednesday night, Trump again tore into Omar, a US citizen born in Somalia, and remained silent for 13 chilling seconds as the crowd chanted: Send her back! Send her back!
It was a clarifying moment about the two faces of America in 2019. One is that of a 73-year-old white man spewing nativist bigotry and raging against change. The other is that of a 37-year-old hijab-wearing Muslim woman, a refugee from Africa turned congresswoman greeted with cries of Welcome home, Ilhan! on her return to Minnesota.
To many this feels like a pivot point in history. In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser wrote of Trump: Half of the country is appalled but not really sure how to combat him; the other half is cheering, or at least averting its gaze. This is what a political civil war looks like, with words, for now, as weapons.
Smith, a financial consultant, knows which side he is on.
Trumps for all America and these four women hate America, he said. They want to change America into something I dont recognise. If they were a bunch of white choirboys, I would be saying the same thing. They say we have a racist country , but I think there is very little broken in America right now.
Intentionally or not, Trumps embrace of white identity politics may work to his advantage next year. Only four House Republicans voted for a resolution to condemn his remarks. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed his net approval among Republicans rose by five points to 72%.
Its a brilliant strategy, said Smith, who intends to vote for Trump again. He is making those four the face of the Democratic party and the party is not distancing itself from them. Unless the Democrats become more realistic about what America wants and needs, hes going to point it out over and over again.
He doesnt do anything without a purpose
Trump founded his political career on a conspiracy theory about Barack Obamas birthplace and saw his poll figures rise when he demanded a ban on Muslims entering the US. He won white voters by more than 20 points and appears to be aiming higher.
His rallies become electrified not when he cites achievements or ambitions but when he unleashes bilious tirades against Obama, Clinton, political correctness and the media. The squad of four leftwing congresswomen of colourhas become his ideal foil. The quartet are more strongly disliked by Republicans than the Democrats 2020 candidates, according to an Economist-YouGov poll.
Tyler Sewell, 53, sitting outside the Mudhouse Downtown cafe in Charlottesville, said Trumps racism was calculated.
He doesnt do anything without a purpose, he said. Hes targeting that base and we know what hes saying. He wouldnt have said Go back where you came from if he didnt really intend to say immigrants go home.
Hes playing on this fear theres a real white, blue-collar American fear of the browning of America. Theyre afraid of brown people. Its irrational. Its unavoidable. Our country is getting browner and thats just the way its going to be. They see the browning of America as a loss of American values but its American values we were all brought up with as white people.
Sewell, who works in digital media, voted for Trump in 2016 but now bitterly regrets it and will not do so again.
He thinks hes going to win, he said. I dont imagine how hes ever going to win this time because I look at Republican women and I dont know a woman alive thats gonna vote for this man now.
A lot of my Democrat friends are terrified. They see the writing on the wall and think Trumps gonna win. I dont. I think hes going to lose. But I am ashamed. I would like to take that vote back.
I remember segregation
Trump supporters are scarce in Charlottesville, a college town where Hillary Clinton won nearly 80% of the vote and where the mayor is an African American woman. The white supremacists who stormed it came from elsewhere. The city regained its footing.
As the sound of cicadas filled a hot summer night, Olivia Branch, who works in the hospitality industry, said: People realised it was not who we truly are and did not reflect our community. Charlottesville is a wonderful place. It is very diverse and has a lot to offer.
Sitting in a square still dominated by the Lee statue, Branch, 63, acknowledged that white supremacists have been emboldened Theyve always been around. They just now feel that they have a platform and a supporter. Theyre coming out of the dark and into the light. Were more aware.