For the second time in three weeks in Falls Church, last August’s violent white supremacist demonstration and riot in Charlottesville was the central focus of a major public event. On Oct. 29, four local religious leaders spearheaded an event at the Dulin United Methodist Church keying off an eyewitness account of the deadly riot by a pastor of the Rock Springs United Church of Christ.
This Sunday night, Northern Virginia native Michael Signer, now the mayor of Charlottesville, spoke to a capacity crowd at the Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church about the Aug. 12 incident and his reflections on it.
Signer, also former senior policy advisor at the Center for American Progress and deputy counsel to Virginia Senator Mark Warner, stated bluntly Sunday night that as mayor of the city afflicted by the white supremacists’ riot, it is clear to him that the events of that day constituted “domestic terrorism.”
He said that the city of Charlottesville is continuing a criminal investigation into the events and has filed a lawsuit against six of the alleged paramilitary groups that were involved on grounds that such groups are illegal under Virginia state law.
Signer, who is a member of the oldest synagogue in Virginia located in Charlottesville, said that he was the target of anti-Semitic smears via the Internet for months before the August riot, as his city moved to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
He said Charlottesville was chosen by the white supremacists for that reason. They descended on it from 31 states, because of its dedication as an exemplary “great American city embracing policies of tolerance and compassion and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S.”
He said the election results last week in Virginia, with a sweep by three Democratic statewide candidates and a tsunami of support for Democrats running for state legislative offices — with a minimum of 15 seats in the state legislature “flipped” from all white men to 11 women, a transgender candidate, two Latina delegates, a lesbian delegate and an Asian American woman — was due in part to the popular reaction against the white supremacists, and the basis for a “gritty optimism.”
Leading up to the election there was a mood of repudiation of the alt-right and the invitation that the current presidential administration had extended to them to enter the mainstream of American politics.
“The American system has it in its DNA to handle stress tests,” he said, but the outcomes of such tests will not happen automatically, but depend on “what we decide to do.”
In his prescient 2008 book, “Demagogue, The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies,” Signer identifies the long-standing historical tug of war between democracy and the tendency of democracy to spawn the potential for its own demise in the rise of demagogues. “If the people dedicate themselves to the rule of law, they will defy the demagogue. If, on the other hand, the people are more interested in the roller-coaster of the demagogue’s ambitions than their own small part in maintaining the rule of law in their own nation, democracy can disintegrate into authoritarianism, corruption and murder.”
The subject matter of that book, coming years before Trump and the alt-right broke out on the national scene, calls for “the need to think about, communicate, and work directly with people, rather than just leaders and institutions. We need to learn to view a successful liberal order in a country as a product of culture and values.”
With his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley and law degree from the University of Virginia, Signer noted that the first and last of the nationally-founding Federalist Papers dealt with the need to resist demagoguery.
Sunday night, he hailed the evidence that this has been in play in the reaction to the Charlottesville riot in Virginia, and that the August riot “might be seen as the last gasp of something.”
“I have a tough optimism about our democracy’s self-saving potential, and in the resilience and defiance against those who would incite fear.” He said the alt-right movement “may be defeating itself by revealing its full regalia,” becoming “its own worst enemy.” Last week’s election, he said, “showed a public rising up resoundingly against unacceptable fringe behavior” by citizens who are coming the realize “that there’s a burden that comes from being an American.”
It reflects a “vibrant, robust resistance movement against authoritarianism,” he said.
Following his talk and a Q-and-A period, Signer signed copies of his newest book, a biography of Founding Father James Madison entitled, “Becoming Madison, the Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father.”