How Charlottesville transformed the Republican Party

The Unite the Right rally may have dispersed five years ago, but within the GOP, it never really ended.

Lais Borges/Mic; Photo by Anthony Crider/Charlottesville "Unite the Right" Rally 08/12/2017; Getty Images
Charlottesville, Five Years Later

By now the images have become an indelible part of American history: screaming white faces, lit by tiki torches, marching lockstep through the night; masked bigots, clad in the makeshift uniforms of their respective hate groups, holding shields emblazoned with Nazi symbols; anguish and confusion and resolve in the eyes of protesters scrambling to confront, or maybe escape, the violence and mayhem in their community.

Five years ago, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, thrust this country’s latest iteration of right-wing white nationalism into the national spotlight, not as an aberration or subculture relegated to the fringes of whatever most people would consider “respectable” society, but instead as a pivotal political bloc — one with deep, longstanding roots in America’s history of ultranationalist racism, which emerged over those days as a newly vital force within a Republican Party in the throes of its own Trumpian metamorphosis.

On a very basic level, that metamorphosis within the GOP was a less a wholesale adoption of Donald Trump’s coarse xenophobia and bigotry and more a rebranding of those long-standing conservative throughlines under a gauzy MAGA veneer. The Unite the Right attendees, a motley assortment of neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and out-and-out white nationalists, had thrived in scattered pockets around the country for decades. That they existed was itself nothing new. What was new, however, was the GOP’s recognition of the nascent era of Trumpian conservatism as an opportunity to both cement and capitalize on those shared interests more concretely than anytime since the 1960s.

Ostensibly, the Unite the Right rally was held to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate icon Robert E. Lee from a city park. As the Unite the Right rally’s promotional material made clear, however, the event unambiguously intended to capitalize on the national debate over racist iconography to rally a host of bigoted ultra-nationalist groups with pre-existing plans for violence and mayhem. And after the rally delivered on those plans — culminating in the murder of activist Heather Heyer — a number of mainstream Republican figures condemned the bloodshed in strident language.

Trump, however — president for just seven months at the time — equivocated, insisting that many of the attendees of the Unite the Right rally were “very fine people” simply intent on protecting their (racist) history. Reactions to Trump’s remarks were swift and unforgiving... at first. But the furor quickly dissipated, and there were no lasting political consequences.

And so, taking their cues from Trump’s now-iconic noncondemnation, the Republican Party and its various media apparatchiks began to recognize that the type of racism that animated the rally could be harnessed for electoral gains — and that Trump had given them cover to use it. After Aug. 12, 2017, the party became a vehicle for enterprising politicians who tacitly condoned the vitriol to advance their own political careers, actively casting its net into the murky waters that they’d once kept at arms distance.

Consider Corey Stewart, who used the pending removal of the Lee statue as a campaign point in his (ultimately unsuccessful) Virginia gubernatorial bid, declaring at a rally just weeks before the Unite the Right riots that “Robert E. Lee was a Virginia hero, an American hero.” Joining him at that campaign event, it so happened, was Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, who proclaimed “every generation has its fight, and our fight is this.” After the violence that ensued, Stewart still earned the GOP nomination to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine in the 2018 midterms. And while he ultimately lost, the broader implication was clear: An association with an event like Unite the Right was no longer a career killer in Republican politics.

President Donald Trump speaks to the press about protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Following close on Stewart’s heels was a new class of similarly extreme Republicans, best exemplified in the elections in 2020 of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Madison Cawthorn, each of whom carried their own history of conspiracy-mongering and bigotry. Although none of them attended the Unite the Right rally itself, all three brought — and in Boebert and Greene’s cases, continue to bring — that same strand of extremism that marched through the streets of Charlottesville into the halls of Congress. From chants of “Jews will not replace us” by the light of tiki torches to Greene’s recent call for the GOP to become the party of “Christian nationalism” and Boebert’s insistence that “the church is supposed to direct the government,” the extremist rhetoric at Charlottesville was laundered into mainstream political talking points in a way that seems unimaginable had the march not introduced — and normalized — them to significant swaths of the general public.

That normalization has been sped by another symbiotic relationship: that between the GOP and the far-right media. The biggest player in the ecosystem is Fox News, whose various hosts’ screeds frequently rose to de facto policy slates within the Trump administration. Anti-immigrant rants by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham helped mainstream the white nationalist “great replacement” theory. What’s more, the pair’s invectives against removing Confederate iconography were aligned with the purported animating impetus behind the march itself — the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. While both Ingraham and Carlson had fanned the flames of bigotry in the past, that their post-Charlottesville broadcasts so overtly embraced the same rhetoric as the marchers show just how much Unite the Right was an ossifying moment for conservatives in general. Sure, the Nazi violence in the streets wasn’t ideal, but by massaging the marchers’ rallying cry just enough, Fox News and other right-wing outlets like Newsmax and OAN helped push the GOP more toward the far-right goal of a white Christian ethnostate than ever before.

That more than anything is the defining legacy of Charlottesville. The subtext was made text. The quiet part was said aloud. The mask, however precariously it had been held in place before, was fully off. The Republican Party began its unequivocal slide from “party that kept its extremists at arm’s length for civility’s sake” to “party that weaponized its extremists for power’s sake.”

None of this was the result of Charlottesville alone. Trump didn’t turn the GOP into a party of bigotry, so much as supercharge the threads that were already there. However, one can draw a direct line from Charlottesville to perhaps the single most consequential moment of Trump’s presidency: the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which yet another mob of far-right foot soldiers was actively encouraged by Republicans to disrupt the 2020 presidential election. While the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and III%ers who formed the core of the violent insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021, were not present in Charlottesville in 2017 (Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes had publicly declined to attend the rally, fearing association with the Nazis who were attending, but he did eventually condone members of his group attending if they “[felt] compelled), their growing influence leading up to Jan. 6 was a clear sign that at least some Republicans saw Charlottesville as a template to be iterated upon. Longtime Republican operative and key Trump ally Roger Stone had already empowered the Proud Boys as his de facto security militia. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz in 2018 posed for a cheery photograph with an obviously dressed Proud Boy. During the siege on the Capitol, Oath Keepers went out of their way to provide cover for GOP Rep. Ronnie Jackson, claiming he “has critical data to protect.” (Jackson has denied any association with the specific militia members in question.) If Unite the Right was a bottom-up expression of extremist ultranationalism, then the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally was the opposite: an astroturfed example of those in power recognizing the potential to use those extremists for their own purposes.

Cumulatively, it’s clear that not only was the ascendant MAGA share of the Republican Party comfortable with its closer relationship with violent militias and street gangs, but also that in the lead-up to and events of Jan. 6, those gangs saw themselves as being in active partnership with those same politicians. Without that sense of cover from elected members of the GOP, it’s hard to imagine that the militias involved in the attempted coup would have marched through the streets of Washington, D.C., with the same nationalist bravado on display in Charlottesville.

It’s impossible to say what the GOP would look like today had Charlottesville not taken place. Would the Republican Party have still embraced the extremist figures it does now? Would groups like the Proud Boys — whom Trump so famously told to “stand back and stand by” — present the threat they do now, not only as a street gang but increasingly as an electoral factor as well? Would Republicans like Eric Greitens have called for such overt violence against his political opponents in his Senate campaign ads, or Doug Mastriano have turned to the bigoted figurehead behind an expressly racist social media platform for advice on his gubernatorial run in Pennsylvania? We’ll never know. We live in a world where a gaggle of assorted racists marched through the streets of a small college town, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Yet after some minor dyspeptic rumblings, the conservatives in power essentially swallowed the experience and internalized its lessons. The Unite the Right rally may have dispersed five years ago, but within the GOP, it never really ended.