The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The violence in Charlottesville can’t be blamed on a foreign power

Placeholder while article actions load

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.

Charlottesville, Virginia — a college town about two hours from Washington — is usually far off America's national radar. But this weekend, as a loose far-right alliance including the so-called alt-right, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members headed to the city to march against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, it was at the center of the biggest story in the nation.

Clashes erupted when the far right held a Nazi-esque torchlight march Friday evening and again the next day. By Saturday morning, the state of Virginia had declared a state of emergency. Not long afterward, one man with an apparent long-standing obsession with Nazi imagery plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Later that day, he was charged with second-degree murder.

For a dispute that seemingly centered on still-contested elements of American history — the Civil War and slavery — there was an international flair to the symbols used by some of the far-right marchers. The Southern Poverty Law Center spotted flags and other items that referenced Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, while James Alex Fields Jr., the man charged with murder, had posted a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on his Facebook page.

James Alex Fields Jr., 20, is accused of driving his car into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Sarah Parnass, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post)

Some observers also saw a far more direct foreign influence at work in Charlottesville. Molly McKew, a writer and foreign policy consultant, argued on Twitter that far-right protests should prompt a conversation about “Russian influence, and operations, in the United States.” Jim Ludes, a vice president of Public Research and Initiatives at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, added that there were “unmistakable ties between alt-right groups in Charlottesville and Russia.”

Such talk of Russia's influence on the American far right has surged over the past year, in line with accusations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

In one example, an organization called the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan group trying to focus attention on Russian interference in Western politics, said that 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations had promoted the Twitter hashtag #FireMcMaster that called for the ousting of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump's embattled national security adviser and an object of scorn for many alt-right supporters of President Trump.

Far-right protesters haven't done much to dispel the idea: When they gathered in Charlottesville in May, they chanted “Russia is our friend.” And amid the investigations into potential collusion by President Trump's campaign with Russia, the outspoken support many far-right leaders express for Trump — some marchers even yelled “Heil Trump!” — seems to some critics to make them likely collaborators as well.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Aug. 13 said Charlottesville is “stronger” a day after violence erupted in the city. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Even so, many Russian experts have expressed concern that Moscow’s influence in the U.S. is being dramatically exaggerated. The seeming affinity between Russia and the American far right is undermined by the fact that the two are hardly a neat ideological fit. Vladimir Putin's government has crushed most of the political ambitions of Russia's own far right. Putin is a critical ally of Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov and allows Chechnya, a Muslim-majority Russian republic, to follow its own conservative brand of the religion.

Nor are the ideas that drive the American far-right an invention of Moscow. J.M. Berger, a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, recently suggested that Russia can only help spread messages that already exist. “None of this is to assert Russia controls or orchestrates what happens on the alt-right; they do however opportunistically amplify it,” wrote Berger on Twitter last week following criticism of the Alliance's work.

Indeed, the setting of Charlottesville speaks to the extent to which the far right’s message is all-American. The statue of Lee that sparked this weekend's violence was installed in 1924, almost 60 years after the end of the Civil War and in the same year that Virginia made it illegal for a white person to marry a nonwhite person.

Writing in the Atlantic earlier this year, Adam Serwer noted that raising statues of Lee and other Confederate figures was part of an ongoing “150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one” known as the Lost Cause. It's also largely thanks to this movement that the Confederate flag remains in use today. Neo-Nazis in Germany have even been known to adopt the flag to get around their country's ban on Nazi symbols.

Reimagining Lee as a tragic and admirable figure for all Americans, a reluctant secessionist who thought the war was about states' rights rather than slavery, was one part of the Lost Cause campaign, Serwer wrote — despite the fact that Lee was himself a slaveholder. And the backlash to removing Confederate monuments and symbols long predates the rise of “alt-right” groups or the Trump campaign.

Consider, for example, the long-running fights over removing the Confederate flag from government buildings in Southern states, which stretch back decades. In Charlottesville — now known for being a supposed island of liberalism in a conservative area of Virginia — serious debate about removing the statue of Lee first surfaced in 2012 and quickly prompted an angry and evidently homegrown response.

The New Yorker's Jelani Cobb pointed out that the seeds of this weekend's violence go back even further: pro-Nazi rallies of considerable size have taken place in America numerous times over the years. What is unusual about the weekend's events is not that the far right is mobilizing in the U.S., Cobb writes, but that “we’ve seen such a feeble response to those gatherings in the upper echelons of American power.”

It's here that the similarities between the far right in Charlottesville and Russia's alleged interference do stand out. While President Trump has publicly offered passionate vitriol over enemies as diverse as North Korea and the department store Nordstrom, he has been mostly quiet and diplomatic about Russian aggression. Far-right violence appears to be another one of the rare topics on which the outspoken president is unable to raise his voice.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.