The videos that rolled across the television screen were startling: Americans beating each other with clubs and sticks on the streets of a quiet college town. White supremacists with torches; anti-fascists pushing back. An improvised flame thrower fashioned from an aerosol can. Bottles of frozen water hurled like bricks at one another’s skulls.
Kevin Boyle, an American history professor at Northwestern University, watched it unfold, the feeling in his gut both horror and a sense that the racial tension bubbling for years had finally, almost inevitably, begun boiling over.
“Given our political moment, I’m not surprised that we’ve come to this point,” he said. “I’m terribly depressed we’ve come to this point but I’m not surprised. It didn’t come out of nowhere.”
Historians and political scientists have been warning that American politics had become a pressure cooker, full of racial tension building once again to the point of a deadly clash, like the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday that claimed three lives.
Coverage of the Charlottesville attack:
White supremacy has always lurked in America’s shadow, said Boyle, whose teaching focuses on the history of racial violence and civil rights. Then, he believes, President Donald Trump was elected and emboldened their hate.
“Donald Trump gave them permission to come out into the real world,” he said. “As long as they were existing in this kind of sad little shadow world where they were just talking to each other, it was disturbing, but it’s not as profoundly dangerous as when they feel they can take the public square.”
Saturday’s chaos erupted around what is believed to be the largest group of white nationalists…