In June 2015, Donald Trump and Dylann Roof ushered in a new era of racist violence and white resentment.
Dylann Roof, who murdered nine worshippers at a historic black church, listened to proceedings during a hearing at the Judicial Center in Charleston, South Carolina in July.
Five years ago this month, two men separately launched their plans to make America great again — Donald Trump in Trump Tower, and Dylann Roof in Mother Emanuel Church.
“We need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again,” said Trump as he declared his presidential candidacy in New York on June 16, 2015. More than 700 miles away, Roof already believed he was that somebody.
In Charleston, S.C., the next day, Roof entered the South’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal church and massacred nine Black people during their evening Bible study. In his twisted manifesto, he wrote, “I believe that even if [white people] made up only 30 percent of the population, we could take [America] back completely.” Roof concluded: “Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
Unlike mass shooters in a Pittsburgh synagogue, two New Zealand mosques, and an El Paso Walmart, Roof was not inspired by Trump’s hateful speech about Mexicans, Muslims, or his thinly veiled language about a great America as a white America. Yet Trump and Roof are bound by their affection for the crushed Confederacy, and its indelible stain — white resentment and racist violence.
In a photo found after his arrest, Roof holds a Confederate flag. Now Trump celebrates the losers who fought for it. Even NASCAR has now banned the banner from its events and venues. (For decades, the stars and bars were as common at races as a checkered flag.) Various state leaders are talking about removing statues of those who chose slavery over country; some activists aren’t waiting for official action, taking down or defacing the monuments themselves.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is demanding the removal of 11 Confederate statues in the US Capitol. For now, I guess, we’re skipping deeper conversations about how they’ve stood for decades as state-sanctioned emblems of white terrorism and the subjugation of Black people.
Trump, of course, avoids reading the room like he shuns reading White House memos and briefings. He tweeted that he “will not even consider” renaming military bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas, which honor Confederate figures.
These bases belong to a “Great American Heritage” and a “history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” he said, but Trump isn’t talking about the buildings. He means those whose names they bear — men who divided this nation, lost a war that killed more Americans than any other conflict, and refused to recognize Black people’s humanity.
This is why men like Trump and Roof, as well as the president’s devout base, fetishize the Confederacy. Their notions of reclaiming America as their own nation are based on the white supremacist beliefs, born in the antebellum era, that continue to choke off opportunity and equality for people of color. Too often, those beliefs literally choke them to death.
When Trump speaks of “winning,” it’s always a salve for white manhood castrated by losing the Civil War, a legacy passed through angry generations. Even the New Zealand shooter, an Australian who murdered more than 50 people in 2019, called Trump “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” The phrase “The South will rise again” isn’t just a metaphor for avenging defeat.
After Trump announced he would hold a rally in Tulsa on June 19, it wasn’t a dog whistle, it was a sonic boom. That’s Juneteenth, a sacred day for Black Americans that commemorates the end of slavery; this month also marks the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, when white people slaughtered hundreds of African-Americans in the city’s Greenwood district, then known as “Black Wall Street.”
It’s a willful provocation. As Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party.” It’s no wonder that Trump’s supporters often carry his campaign banner alongside the Confederate flag.
A self-radicalized terrorist, Roof imagined himself as the last brave white man, foreshadowing Trump saying, “I alone can fix it,” at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Roof chose a church for his murderous attempt at white salvation. Trump also used unprovoked violence, and a church and Bible as props for his own strongman photo-op during protests after the police killing of George Floyd.
As this nation again tries to find a way out of its self-imposed darkness, Trump stands firmly against America. He is not compelled by bravery, but a fear of progress neither he nor his base can comprehend. Both Trump and Roof are tied together by more than a coincidence of timing five years ago. Like Roof, the avowed white supremacist, the self-identified “nationalist” president tills destruction and grief from the ashes of a morally corrupt Confederacy that was vanquished 155 years ago, but refuses to die.
Graham Is a Globe Newspaper Columnist.