The former mayor of Charlottesville delivers a vivid, first-person chronicle of the terror and mayhem of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” event, and shows how issues of extremism are affecting not just one city but the nation itself.
The deadly invasion of Charlottesville, Virginia, by white nationalist militias in August 2017 is a microcosm of the challenges facing American democracy. No one is better placed to tell the story of what really happened, and to draw out its larger significance, than Michael Signer, then Charlottesville’s mayor.
Signer, a lawyer, historian, political theorist, and public servant, sets the events on the ground–the lead-up to August’s “Unite the Right” rally, the days of the weekend itself, the aftermath-into the larger context of a country struggling to find its way through the sturm und drang of the Trump era.
He confronts some of the most pressing questions of our moment. How do we:
Reconcile free speech with the need for public order?
Maintain the values of pragmatism, compromise, even simple civility, in a time of intensification of extremes on the right and the left?
Address systemic racism through our public spaces and memorials?
Do something about the widespread disaffection with institutions and a democracy that seems to be faltering and turning on itself?
The siege of Charlottesville shows how easily our communities can be taken hostage by forces intent on destroying democratic norms and institutions. But Signer concludes with a stirring call for optimism, pointing out, with evidence drawn from Charlottesville and work it has spurred since, that even this tragedy contains an opportunity to bolster democracy from within and defend our very ability to govern.
Kirkus Reviews: “An insider’s account of the ‘madness and mayhem’ of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 and the nightmare confrontation between free speech and public safety that the clash created. Signer (Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father, 2015, etc.) was mayor of the progressive college town when hundreds of armed, torch-carrying protesters arrived, shouting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ ostensibly to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee from removal. Although he lacked power in his ceremonial position (the city manager was in charge), Signer felt compelled to act: He was Jewish, an expert on demagoguery, and teaching a university course on race, policy and history. With a doctorate in political science, the author was committed to deliberative government. In this deeply introspective book, which addresses Donald Trump's fearmongering rise to the presidency, Signer explains how he was ‘pushing the boundaries’ of his job, encouraging different perspectives on the statue issue and upsetting many staff with his seeming meddling. Some citizens insisted on removing the Confederate monument; others, on keeping it as a ‘teachable moment.’ Opposing ‘symbolic politics,’ the author hoped to ‘recontextualize’ the statue, using public space to tell the full story of race. With the ‘Unite the Right’ rally imminent, Signer began seeking a ‘silver bullet’ to avert violence between opposing protesters, enlisting advice and assistance from experts. His frustration at not being able to shape the outcome is palpable. ‘I could have left more up to others,’ he writes. He offers a thorough analysis of the ‘shortcomings’ of First Amendment law and the failures of policing. Berating himself as sometimes ‘impetuous,’ he emerges as a well-intentioned, proactive figurehead who suffered undeserved attacks on social media. Signer refuses to scapegoat, but it is noteworthy that most of those in power at the time are now gone. A complex, disturbing, valuable tale of racial disharmony, government failure, and one man's frantic attempts to save the day.”
“Becoming Madison” is an essential biography of an essential Founder.”
- Editorial Page, Richmond Times-Dispatch
"A perfect introduction to a deeply private and immensely important man.”
- Kirkus Reviews
"Signer . . . delivers hope, confidence and a vision for diplomacy."
- Publisher's Weekly
"[A] muscular narrative... Makes a forceful case for civic engagement and eternal vigilance.”
- Kirkus Reviews