If there is one day from the Trump presidency that will be remembered as a key turning point, my pick is Aug. 12, 2017. The footage coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia, that weekend was horrifying: first, on Friday night, a torchlight rally of pallid-faced white nationalist marchers on the University of Virginia grounds, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil!” Then on Saturday morning, Aug. 12, melee in the streets of Charlottesville, a surreal mix of self-caricaturing militia and KKK types parading in broad daylight—white supremacist groups cranked up on years of midnight chat-room binges, now out in numbers looking to hurt people.
The nation saw, and shuddered. This was not coded racism, like the Willie Horton ads the George H.W. Bush campaign for President ran in the 1988 campaign. This was Nuremberg in 1934, a rally of the right conceived as an exercise in self-justifying propaganda. Hate-filled cultists on a mission, preening and strutting and showing us all they think they’re superior and that many of their fellow citizens are subhuman. The mob in Charlottesville made clear they felt encouraged and even egged on by the demagogue in the White House, with David Duke, a national KKK leader, confirming that very point in Charlottesville that day.
The question was, how would President Trump respond? I’ll make an admission that might make me sound like a naif: Watching the horrors unfold from here in Santa Cruz, I actually thought Trump might condemn the white supremacists who had come from 35 states—some of them from Northern California—to gather in Charlottesville and revel in hate and violence. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that the reality-TV president might actually decide to act presidential.
It’s more than an idle point, as former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s new book, Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism, makes clear. McAuliffe, who was governor at the time, talked with Trump on Aug. 12, and hung up the phone convinced Trump was going to do the right thing.
“I had no illusions that a guy whose favorite thing to do was watch himself on TV was suddenly going to turn into Bobby Kennedy,” McAuliffe writes on the second page of the book. “Eloquence was no more his thing than consistency. But in the middle of a crisis like this, I honestly did expect him to rise to the occasion. That’s what presidents do.”
Instead, infamously, Trump showed up before the cameras that afternoon at his golf course in New Jersey, condemning “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence”—and then, in a Dadaist twist, adding, “on many sides, on many sides.” Donald Trump had just hit the gas and barreled past the last exit ramp left in his presidency; instead of veering toward decency and democracy, he went with his base impulses, choosing blatant racism.
“I was shocked,” McAuliffe writes. “I felt our nation had just been suckerpunched.”
It fell to McAuliffe, as the sitting governor, to say the words many thought the president of the United States should have spoken. “I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today,” McAuliffe said on national TV that afternoon. “Our message is plain and simple: go home and never come back. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you are patriots, but you are anything but a patriot. You are a bunch of cowards.”
McAuliffe’s words were widely cited. He had shown leadership when the man in the White House showed none. Congressman John Lewis, one of the giants of the Civil Rights movement, heard those words and called the Virginia governor the following Monday to thank him. “I cried when I heard your speech,” Lewis told McAuliffe. “That was one of the great speeches I’ve ever heard in my life.”
I was struck immediately with the importance of what happened in Charlottesville. Later, I reached out and urged McAuliffe to do a book about it. I was the co-author of McAuliffe’s first book, What a Party!: My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals, which hit the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in March 2007.
I helped him with this project, as well, and it was fascinating to be there with McAuliffe as he talked to a variety of people about what went wrong in the preparations for Charlottesville, and what lessons need to be drawn. McAuliffe can come across as very sure of himself, and always ready with an answer, but he learned from doing this book about listening—as all of us, especially white people, are going to have to do if we’re going to make any real headway.
“I wrote this book because I wanted people to have a full understanding of what happened in Charlottesville,” McAuliffe told me on the phone last weekend. “It was such a shocking moment in U.S. history that a thousand people could walk down a city street spewing the most hate-filled, vile, disgusting language at fellow Americans.”
I asked him what he learned from working on the book.
“Upon reflection, as I wrote the book, as bad as Charlottesville was, there was an upside to it, which was that we exposed this sickening underbelly in American culture and realized that we have to do much more to deal with racism and its effects,” he said.
Charlottesville was not a wakeup call for African-Americans, McAuliffe added, as they did not need a wakeup call—they knew all about these racist white supremacist organizations. But for a lot of the rest of us, the horror of Charlottesville endures in a way that needs to be explored. What more can we do? How do we truly keep alive the memory of Charlottesville?
Susan Bro lost a daughter in Charlottesville, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was peacefully protesting when James Fields drove his car into a crowd, killing her and injuring many others. (Two Virginia State Police pilots, Berke Bates and Jay Cullen, were also killed that weekend when their helicopter went down.)
“Heather helped to open my eyes to a lot of things I’d been putting my head in the sand about,” Susan Bro said recently. “If, after Charlottesville, we just talk about ‘Love one another’ and have a kumbaya moment here, then we accomplish nothing. We’re back to square one. If we don’t do it now, then we definitely wasted an opportunity—and wasted a life, frankly.”
Beyond Charlottesville details how the governor and his advisors considered declaring a state of emergency late on the morning of Aug. 12, finally doing so in time to clear the park where the “Unite the Right Rally” was centered just before noon, the scheduled start time for the gathering of white supremacists.
“Once we’d cleared the park and everybody had been dispersed, outside of several violent fist fights, there had been no damage to property,” McAuliffe told me. “My biggest relief was that, even with so many people with firearms, nobody got shot. It wasn’t until later that I was informed that this maniac James Fields had weaponized his car and run into a crowd in downtown Charlottesville. Soon after that, I was told that one of our State Police helicopters had gone down and we’d lost two pilots, Berke Bates and Jay Cullen, who were friends of mine and my family. So in a matter of just a few hours, what had seemed like a successful operation had turned into a nightmare.”
It’s always hard to say, but there are indications that a new urgency on fighting against racism might shape up as a major component of Democrats’ path to victory next year against Trump, assuming he’s actually running for re-election. Political reporters who work in Washington would have us believe there is a difficult choice for Democrats to make between emphasizing a positive alternative vision to Trumpism, on the one hand, and fighting back against his demagoguery on the other.
But both can happen, even with intermediaries in the press seeking to sabotage the effort. It’s not dangerous for Democrats to have differences of opinion on how to call Trump out for the racist he is. It’s healthy and productive; let different voices come at Trump from different directions, and we’ll see how it all adds up.
The main point is: No Democratic candidate who is flying on auto-pilot when it comes to issues of racism will survive the primaries. The historical moment—and a lot of angry voters, including many young people—demand much, much more. Joe Biden seems to be slowly tuning into that reality, with his new one-liner about Trump being “more George Wallace than George Washington.” It’s worth noting that Biden dropped the line last week in California, and we’re sure to hear more about Trump and Wallace, the notorious white supremacist governor of Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s.
McAuliffe’s new book has a real shot at becoming part of that larger discussion. Newsweek is planning a cover package next week, including excerpting an entire chapter. Biden has said he was inspired to run for president this time around because of what happened in Charlottesville—and he’s liable to get a book.
Just last week, the White House issued a statement condemning Beyond Charlottesville. “Terry McAuliffe’s slander against the president is nothing short of disgusting,” Judd P. Deere, a White House spokesman perhaps unaware that slander refers to spoken speech, not the printed word, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Trump himself is sure to get involved, firing back at McAuliffe one way or another, but for people who actually read the book—as opposed to just looking at the pictures and searching the index for their own name—the tense run-through of events will be disturbing and thought-provoking. That’s McAuliffe’s hope, to generate a deeper and wider discussion of the need for major change than we’ve ever had.
“For me, if we’re going to have discussions on racism, we have to talk about looking forward and how we deal with racism today,” he told me. “I don’t want to go back 30 or 40 years. I want to look at today and the future. I want discussions of dealing with these problems. It’s not about statues and hateful symbols, it’s about actionable items that deal with the horrible effects of racism.
“My goal is that the book will help open peoples’ eyes. For far too long, we’ve tried to sweep racism under the rug. It’s important that this be brought ought into the light of day for a full discussion. Until we all realize that, we’re going to be in the same place.”
He’ll be meeting with some local community leaders and office holders here in the Santa Cruz area when he arrives for an Aug. 7 book discussion and signing at Bookshop Santa Cruz. It’s a great chance to ask Gov. McAuliffe your own questions about Charlottesville, and to share your own perspective. He may or may not give you an answer you like, but he’ll be listening.
Terry McAuliffe will discuss and sign his new book ‘Beyond Charlottesville: Taking a Stand Against White Nationalism’ at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 423-0900, bookshopsantacruz.com. The event is free.