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How white supremacy morphed into white 'victimization'

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

After the deadly, race-fueled clashes in Charlottesville, Va., I found the most memorable internet meme to be a news photo of torch-carrying white supremacists captioned: "Vanilla ISIS."

That's appropriate on several levels, most horrifically in the car that crashed into a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors, killing one and injuring at least 18 others.

Ramming vehicles into crowds of innocent people is a tactic we have come to associate with the latest phase of Islamic State terrorism. We have to concern ourselves not only with ISIS-trained terrorists but also the ISIS-inspired. We have to be wary of any ordinary person with poisonous ISIS ideas in his or her head to commit a calamity with nothing more extraordinary than an automobile.

Something very similar may have inspired the accused Charlottesville driver, identified by police as James Alex Fields, Jr., from Ohio. He sympathized with neo-Nazi views, people who know him have told reporters, and those misbegotten ideas may be all that it took for tragedy to result.

Words and ideas matter. That's why there was so much pressure on President Donald Trump to come up with a stronger statement than the tepid remarks he delivered by tweets and a formal statement on the day of the disaster.

Trump spoke up but, at first, didn't make it very easy for listeners to figure out whom he was talking about.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms," he said in his original statement Saturday, "this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides."

"On many sides?" Only one side had the casualties, as far as I could see.

Even some of his fellow Republican lawmakers stepped up to criticize Trump's early remarks as insufficient and vague. At times like this, we look to national leaders for voices of reason -- in the same way we called on President Barack Obama to speak out against similarly senseless violence, regardless of the color of the victims or perpetrators.

But for two days, Trump, despite his history of pointedly specific barbs thrown at other targets, ranging from the media to Rosie O'Donnell, was almost as tongue-tied about condemning white racism as he has been about criticizing Vladimir Putin.

Finally on Monday, Trump delivered the sort of statement many had waited for. "Racism is evil," he said from the White House. "And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans."

That's better. What does it matter? A lot.

Trump, too, has said that a president's words against hatred and violence mean a lot -- when the president was named Barack Obama. "Anyone who cannot name our enemy," Trump said in a campaign speech last August, "is not fit to lead this country."

At that time, Trump was talking about using the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism." Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions, hardly a liberal on such matters, declared the Charlottesville killing to be domestic terrorism.

Worse, the "Unite the Right" rally was linked at least in spirit to President Trump by some of the event's biggest boosters.

"We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump," said former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke earlier that day. "That's why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back."

Duke knows his audience. During Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, I wrote a column mocking Duke for blogging, "Obama is a visual aid for white Americans who just don't get it yet that we have lost control of our country."

Obama hadn't even gotten elected yet. Duke sounded like the last whimpering voice in a trail of populist haters.

But he knew what Trump appears to have figured out. A large body of white Americans feel as left out and aggrieved as a lot of nonwhites do. Duke's trick since the 1970s was to morph the language of his movement from white supremacy to "white victimization."

A sense of victimization is a powerful organizing force, especially in the age of Twitter. Vast audiences of otherwise alienated individuals can be reached and inspired and rallied to a cause -- or inspired to take things into their own hands.

When a deranged black man killed five police officers in Dallas, allegedly inspired by Black Lives Matter, conservatives called for condemnation of that entire movement. We need to hear similar rage about the other side. Words do matter.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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