President Trump arrived in Washington, D.C., seven months ago, promising to “drain the swamp” in that city. Instead, he’s imported a new breed of alligators into the country’s civic life. By elevating the alt-right movement to national prominence, Trump has exposed an ugly facet of American politics that has been largely hidden from view, until now.

What happened in Charlottesville is a wake-up call for America that has been sparking conversations and introspection across the country. We’re at a juncture in America’s road. Whether this moment leads to an expansion of the American fascist movement, or pushes it back into the sewers that it thrives in, depends on what all of us do in the months and years ahead.

Racism and extremism aren’t new in America. They have been a chronic disease since long before our founding. We fought a great civil war over racism. It’s no accident, now, that Charlottesville erupted over a statue of Robert E. Lee or that American Nazis hold the Confederate flag as their standard. The Confederacy represents that last time, in America, in which overt racists had their own country.

Until the 1960s, American racists found a home in the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they’ve migrated en masse to Republicans, who have welcomed them by speaking in code about welfare cheats, immigrants and urban gangs to enflame racial fears.

But America has undergone a profound change on race, over these last six decades, going as far as to elect a black president. We’ve become, by degrees, a more just and tolerant society, moving slowly but continually toward our highest ideals of equality and justice.

Now those changes have created a backlash that has been growing into a movement of white nationalists and their Nazi allies, and that has helped elect a new president. Today, the idea of tolerance and of “one nation, indivisible” is under assault. And we ignore or underestimate this threat to our society and to our nation at our peril.

It was not so long ago, in World War II, that Americans were united in a worldwide struggle against bigotry, intolerance and totalitarian power. As Americans fought in the deserts of Africa, the fields of Europe and the islands of the Pacific, we understood that losing those battles might well mean the end of any and all democratic, melting-pot nations like ours.

Trump has contributed to all of this by his words and by bringing racist radicals into the White House. He appointed Stephen Bannon, a leader of this alt-right movement, to be his chief strategist, which is one of the reasons he’s been confused and erratic when responding to Charlottesville. Bannon was outsted from the White House Friday – for making his boss look bad in a series of interviews, not for his extreme nationalist views.

But as many observers have recently pointed out, Trump and Bannon are not the problem in America today. They are the symptoms of our problems. The country’s civic and cultural life, not to mention our political life, is sick with anger, violence and division. We’ve elevated to hero status some of the basest elements of our society, allowing ourselves to become complacent with vicious hatred in our politics and political campaigns, and rewarded hyper-partisanship by electing the angriest and most divisive candidates we can find.

And now, in places like Charlottesville, we’re beginning to see where this indifference to civility can take us. It turns out that words matter. Tolerance and mutual respect matter. Listening to each other and loving our neighbors – even when they don’t look like us – matter.

Trump has contributed mightily to these ailments in American society, and now he can help reverse the damage by taking two bold steps, one of which he’s already taken. The first is to fire Bannon. Now that he’s done that, Trump should fire himself.

But even if he did those two things, that would only start the process of national healing. Americans need to build a counter movement of resistance to the rise of fascism in this country. We need tolerant, thinking, nonviolent Americans who put the country ahead of their party, and to help renew our journey toward our highest ideals.

We can celebrate the fact that, this past week, millions of ordinary Americans, elected officials and business leaders are speaking out and condemning racism and hatred. Now many more need to add their voices to a rising chorus that calls for an American renewal, and a future build on love and respect rather than hatred and anger.

The first step, for all of us, is to examine our own intolerance. Are we listening as much as we speak? Do we reject hatred and violence when people we support engage in it? Are we living by the ideals that we wish the nation to achieve?

There’s a quote from Nelson Mandela being shared on the internet that is a good reminder of where the work of opposing hate movements begins: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Alan Caron is the owner of Caron Communications and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” and “Reinventing Maine Government.” He can be contacted at:

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