By Kristine Phillips
A white nationalist site calls him “anti-white.”
An article it published in May outlines some highlights of Michael Signer’s term as the mayor of Charlottesville: his endorsement of a $10,000 donation to pay for legal costs to help immigrants and refugees, and his decision to declare his city a “capital of the resistance” just days after President Trump was sworn into office.
For those reasons and others — including Signer’s Jewish heritage — the writer declared: “This is what the enemy looks like.”
Signer, a Democrat, and his city are in the national spotlight this weekend, when hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members descended on the college town more than 100 miles southwest of Washington to protest plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate army.
White nationalists were met by counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, leading Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state emergency. A car plowed into crowds, killing one person and injuring 19 others.
On Sunday, as his city grieves after hours of deadly unrest, Signer made himself more known by making the rounds on the morning shows. He blamed Trump for the violence. He also slammed Trump’s path to the presidency, which he said, emboldened extremist views.
“Look at the campaign he ran,” Signer said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
[Charlottesville victim: ‘She was there standing up for what was right’]
For Signer, Trump’s repeated failure to “condone, denounce, silence, put to bed” the white supremacist voices that invoked his name during the campaign and after he won the White House is why Charlottesville was besieged with violence on Saturday. The president’s statement after the violence, which fell short of directly calling out extremist groups — even after a car allegedly driven by a Nazi sympathizer plowed into counterprotesters — is another example of that, Signer said.
“When you dance with the devil, the devil changes you,” the mayor said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” quoting an old saying. “And I think they made a choice in that campaign, a very regrettable one, to really go to people’s prejudices, to go to the gutter.”
The White House on Sunday issued a clarification of Trump’s broad condemnation of violence, bigotry and hatred a day earlier: “Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
The statement stopped short of what a growing number of Republicans have urged the president to do: directly call out and condemn white supremacy, The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson and Karoun Demirjian wrote.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Signer was asked to respond to Trump’s statement that he wanted to know what had gone wrong in Charlottesville.
[Alleged driver of car that plowed into Charlottesville crowd was a Nazi sympathizer, former teacher says]
“We have a lot of grieving, a lot of work to do, as a city and as a country,” Signer said in response. “But he should look in the mirror.”
Signer made headlines in January when he organized an anti-Trump rally at Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and declared the city a “capital of the resistance.” He outlined policy goals aimed at helping immigrants and refugees. The neo-Confederate site Occidental Dissent, run by Brad Griffin, later described him as a “left-wing activist” leading an effort to eliminate the Southern town’s “native White ethnic group” and to flood it with as many “Third World immigrants as possible.”
In his speech at the mall, Signer said “bigotry in any form” is not welcome in Charlottesville. Even so, the city has found itself at the epicenter of it.
In May, months before the protest over the Confederate statue erupted into deadly violence, Richard Spencer led a torch-bearing crowd in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the memorial, which was erected during the Jim Crow era. The Charlottesville City Council had voted to sell it and rename two parks in the city.
In a statement on Facebook, Signer said the demonstration “hearkens back to the days of the KKK.” Although he condemned the protest, Signer voted against removing the statue, arguing that doing so erases the memories of oppression that should be remembered.
“Instead of removing such memorials, I believe that teaching future generations about the immorality of structural racism is the best way to honestly account for their failings,” he wrote.
Signer said he is not a stranger to hateful slurs.
[Trump didn’t call out white supremacists. He was rebuked by members of his own party.]
“I’m Jewish, and I heard my first hurtful ethnic slur when I was in elementary school,” he said during his State of the City address in January.
The most recent barrage of anti-Semitic attacks occurred on Twitter in May, when he denounced the white nationalist rally. In an interview with the New York Times, Signer said he does not feel the attacks are personal.
“As painful as it is for people to read these tweets, I see them as the last gasps of a failing, retrograde, toxic element in American politics that knows that it’s failing,” he said. “And that’s why they’re so angry.”
Based on his responses to some of the attacks on Twitter, it does not appear that he’s taking them to heart:
“Whew! Lot of trolls tonight,” he tweeted.
“Jewish enough, apparently,” he said after someone asked how Jewish he is.
“You seem nice. What’s your real name?” he said to someone who called him a “disgrace.”