Michael Signer talked about the aftermath of the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville and his work to combat extremism at Beth Chai's Yom Kippur services.
His prepared remarks:
Thank you for having me here today.
It’s an honor to be with you. I’ve heard about Beth Chai for many years from my aunt
Deborah and Uncle Mark. Both my mom Marj and dad Bob are here as well.
I was the mayor of Charlottesville from 2016 to 2018, during the Unite the Right rally.
Not only that, I was the Jewish mayor. And you might have some questions about what that
I appreciate how Yom Kippur is a time not only of atonement, but of taking stock of the
past year, as we look forward to the next. I find that it’s a powerful annual moment to consider
my perspective on the biggest questions: my purpose, the meaning of life, the course of human
history, and whether it’s OK to have a cup of coffee while I’m fasting.
On this Yom Kippur, I’d like to talk with you about optimism.
Just after college, I remember my grandfather Herb Signer—Deborah and Bob’s
dad—telling me, with some mystification, how “everything becomes its opposite.”
He was talking about schemes of government, like the once-bright idea of concentrated
public housing towers, becoming their opposite. But he was talking about a fundamental
paradox of being human. So many of our best-laid plans can become warped beyond
recognition, can spawn their inverse.
Before attending law school, I completed a Ph.D. in political theory at Berkeley, where I
wrote my doctoral dissertation about another instance of my grandfather’s observation:
democracy’s longstanding battle with demagogues. The fact that, over time, many
democracies have ended up becoming tyrannies instead, at the hands of mass leaders who
preyed on our prejudices. It happened again and again in the ancient world, so much that it
became the major topic of Plato’s The Republic—how to design a government that would avoid
the instability of the prejudices.
It happened in the French Revolution, where the happy visions of liberty, equality, and
fraternity, became, in a few short months, the guillotine, the revolution eating its young.
Our founding fathers were obsessed with the issue. The word “demagogue” appears in
the first and last Federalist Papers. We have our checks and balances, and the culture of
constitutionalism, and institutions like the federal judiciary and the Electoral College, in large
part to try and stop demagogues from taking over the country.
And it happened in Weimar Germany, the hopeful, post World War I liberal constitution
torn apart by a demagogue who rose up from within the system and swiftly toppled it once he
As a young boy, I was horrified by the fact that my ancestors would have been
murdered by Hitler for no fault of their own. As I grew older, I began to understand another
dimension of the Holocaust. That it was part of a dark pattern in human history, where
demagogues prey on our prejudices in their quest for power.
In response to whether the United States would be a monarchy or a republic, Benjamin
Franklin said, “It’s a republic, if you can keep it.” James Madison once wrote, The people who are the authors of this blessing must also be its guardians
The lesson of history is that checks and balances are not actually a democracy’s best
defense against a demagogue. It’s not about the courts, or the free press. It’s about the people
themselves, and their resolve to protect themselves from those who would prey on them.
Defiance, determination, and resilience are the heart of a healthy democracy. Democracy is
not a statue on a pedestal. It’s a living and breathing organism. Just as it’s constantly under
attack from the diseases it’s carried since the beginning, like the viruses of anti-Semitism and of
demagoguery, it can respond and adapt.
As agonizing as Charlottesville was, and Poway, Christchurch, Norway, Charleston, San
Bernardino, and, of course, Pittsburgh were, I also believe they were stress tests, and proving
grounds. “Agony,” after all, is an ancient Greek idea. In the tragedies of Euripides, you can’t
ignore struggle. You can’t escape it. You instead must fight through it as you move forward,
and it stays with you like a scar from battle.
Think of how World War II gave birth to FDR’s Four Freedoms, to NATO, to the UN To
the Declaration on Human Rights. Remember how we as a nation came through horrific Jim
Crow laws to ultimately repudiate segregation. Or how in conquering McCarthyism, we
generated a whole new commitment to intellectual freedom.
I also see this personally.
People ask what it was like to be the Jewish mayor of the city when the Unite the Right
rally happened, when white supremacists carried tiki torches on the UVA campus, chanting
“Jews will not replace us,” when a neo-Nazi who weaponized a car killed Heather Heyer and
injured 19 others.
It was hard. I received hate mail at my house. I got a voicemail on my phone with an
audio clip of Hitler ranting. Someone sent me a photo of Robert E. Lee pushing the green
button on a gas chamber with my face photo-shopped into it. I had to talk with the FBI about
whether any of the threatening attacks online constituted actual threats for the purpose of law
My wife and I visited Israel for the second time in 2013, during the 65 th anniversary of
the state. I tell you sincerely that the experience of seeing those sabras at this triumphant
time, watching as a dynamic democracy flourished in a land once dedicated to its destruction,
repudiating once and for all that hateful stereotype of passive Jewish weakness—it gave me the
strength, the backbone, to stand tall in the face of vicious attempts to intimidate me and a
progressive city committed to undoing a racist past.
But none of this was easy. Among the challenges:
To navigate a complex and confusing governmental structure that did not serve the
people well in this crisis. We have a city manager form of government in Charlottesville and
around Virginia, where the city manager is, by law, the head of government and the emergency
manager of the city. The mayor has no role, is not even allowed one, in policing or the
permitting of events. But it was almost impossible to convey that to people, particularly when
things went wrong, when both state and local police failed to stop people from beating other
people up in our streets.
To explain to a city, not just once or twice, but during several white supremacist attacks,
the Supreme Court cases that mandate that governments facilitate free speech events, unless
there is clear evidence of specific planned criminal acts (or incitement to them). It was
miserable to go through cases like Nazis v. Skokie to an agonized population.
To lead a revolt from within the City Council to overrule both our city manager and
police chief, who wanted to stick with a plan to hold the rally in downtown Charlottesville, and
try and force the rally to be held at another location, far from the Robert E. Lee statue. It was
rough to hire an outside law firm to relocate the rally, to be sued by the Virginia ACLU, and to
lose in federal court on the eve of the rally.
To have to speak up for the city after a terrorist attack occurred—after James Fields
drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19
others—and as a group of white supremacists beat a young African-American man in a parking
To try and provide a mechanism for accountability after both state and local police
inexplicably did not interfere in open street-fighting on the streets. It was daunting to
commission an independent investigation, which took three months to produce, and which was
critical toward many parties—myself included. But it was essential.
To continue serving the city in the months after these events, when the wounds were
still so raw.
On Yom Kippur, we all have occasion to think about our mistakes. Tapping our chests
isn’t literally painful, but it’s psychologically tender. This year, I’ll yet again have the
opportunity to reflect on mistakes I made during these events. In the spirit of the holiday, I’ll
tell you about just one. Businesses were really hurting after the event, with some taking out
short-term loans to make payroll. A few days afterward, a giant “LOVE” sign was put on the
Downtown Mall by the Virginia Tourism Board. Our staff asked if I would take a picture in front
of it. I agreed.
Right before, spontaneously, I jumped—and tweeted the photo along with the line that
Charlottesville was back on our feet and stronger than ever. That was too much, too soon, out
of synch with the city’s wounds and mood.
These were all hard experiences.
But I’ve also come to understand that they were part of public service and leadership
itself in a democracy, in a time like the one we are experiencing right now. They were the
wages of fighting as hard as we could, on the terms of our rule of law and the form of
government we had, to protect the people and the freedom of speech.
There’s the world as we want it to be, one of pure ideals and abstract problems and
leadership challenges that you can solve in a textbook.
And then there’s the real world. I can’t get away with talking only about my
grandfather. My grandmother—Deborah and Bob’s mother Esther—worked as a secretary at
the New School in New York, where the great German-Jewish émigré and intellectual Hannah
Arendt taught. I remember Grandma telling me about the “great woman” in her office.
After the Holocaust and World War II, Arendt was troubled by the widespread
temptation to turn away from government and politics entirely. Even in 1968, over twenty
years after the end of World War II, she observed that “more and more people in the countries
of the Western world, which since the decline of the ancient world has regarded freedom from
politics as one of the basic freedoms, make use of this freedom and have retreated from the
world and their obligations within it.”
She argued for the opposite: for turning back to the world, with all of its contradictions,
meanness, faults, and even evil—for embracing the whole of it and plunging into it. That was
the duty of the human being as a social, and therefore a political, animal. She called this amor
mundi—love of the world. She urged us to get involved, to get our hands dirty with realpolitik,
not despite of, but because of, the cost.
That’s how I see my time as the mayor of Charlottesville.
That’s how I see democracy itself. Democracy is rough and tumble. It’s not a controlled
bureaucracy. For better and for worse, to get involved, you have to work with what comes to
you. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to take punches. You have to stand up for
what’s right and what’s true—in the face of fake news, vicious adversaries, and yes, the
disruptive and distorting effects of social media.
And there were also rewards. As brutal as the onslaughts online were, I know they
came because of how strongly we were standing against hate. I know that one meaning of
Charlottesville will be to reveal for the nation the violence at the heart of the alt-right
movement, to cause millions of people to recoil from this sordid and hateful reality and to say
this movement must not be allowed to mainstream itself any further.
As wrenching as the pain in the city was, directed toward me and other officials, I know
we were there for that purpose: to serve as foils, even scapegoats, for an agonized people
seeking a target for their catharsis, after unspeakable trauma.
And as painful as the mistakes were, I knew they could serve some purpose—for other
governments to figure out how to handle this violent time better.
It’s a frightening time. In their recent best-selling book When Democracies Die, political
scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the United States is seeing the nascent
emergence of several anti-democratic norms: (1) the rejection of the democratic rules of the
game, (2) the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, (3) the toleration or
encouragement of violence, and (4) a willingness to promote curtailing the civil liberties of
opponents, including the media.
Democracy itself is under assault from the most dangerous, most ancient demons that
have been unleashed—naked prejudice, self-interest, and rage. I saw that in the 50,000 person
city of Charlottesville. And I see it on the broad canvas of the 300 million person United States
So what’s the alternative? Do we give up? What do we need to do now, if our country
has become a place where people feel free to chant “Jews will not replace us” on college
campuses? If we see a rise in radical domestic terrorism, radicalized online?
For me, it means we must only fight harder for democratic norms, ideals, and
institutions. For the basic ideas of democracy, of liberty and equality, of public policy based on
facts, of institutions that allow us to deliberate among each other rather than shout each other
down or punch each other out,
The stakes are incredibly high. We will be hurt in the process. We will be scarred. But
we will also see the power of our values more vividly than before. We will understand why we
have to fight, and how hard.
But I sincerely believe we will come out of this moment a better democracy than we
were before. We will emerge more committed to pluralism, to anti-racism, to religious
freedom, to the fight against terrorism, and to justice, than ever before.
I will give you an example. Soon after the Unite the Right rally, the City joined with
Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection to successfully
sue a dozen militia groups to prevent them from invading the city again, by dusting off a two
century-old provision in Virginia’s Constitution making militias illegal. This law was put in place
in the 18 th century, when we were still worried about whether private armies would threaten
the legitimate government. We’ve not needed those laws for 200 years. But we need them
now. And they are serving their purpose.
These are all the reasons why in the months after the Unite the Right rally I worked to
create Communities Overcoming Extremism: the After Charlottesville Project—to create more
capacity among both public and private sector leaders for the work against extremism, by
creating alliances and developing best practices.
The coalition reveals the bipartisan commitment to defend our democracy. We have
the Anti-Defamation League and the Charles Koch Institute, the Ford Foundation and the Fetzer
Institute, the Aspen Society, New America, Defending Democracy Together and Georgetown
We held a leadership summit at Washington University in St. Louis last November,
featuring impressive national and local leaders. One panel included Andy Berke, the Jewish
mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which saw a terrorist attack in 2015 and over 130 bias
incidents in recent years.
Mayor Berke recently invited me to Chattanooga to help him launch a new Council
Against Hate that convened community leaders in seven different areas—including local
businesses, the local university, the police, and the public schools—to develop specific action
plans to put a quickly-changing city on the offense against extremism.
We held a private sector leadership summit in San Francisco this summer, including
companies like Paypal, Patreon, Pinterest, Airbnb, and Eventbrite, all working hard on getting
extremism off their platforms and who want to work together.
You can see more information about the project at www.overcomingextremism.org.
Yes, it is a frightening time. But there are many signs of hope. As Martin Luther King,
Jr., said, “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
To go back to the paradox my grandfather saw, things always threaten to become their
opposite—but they don’t have to. That’s our job. Stopping the vicious cycle.
Forgive a comment on current events. But I see the impeachment battle happening
right now through this lens. On the one hand, the darkest forces that democracy can
unleash—prejudices, abuses of power, the naked will to power, and lies. On the other
hand—deliberation, the facts, the rule of law, putting nation above self and party and politics.
This will be—already is—a clash unlike any we have seen in the modern political era, for
it features those two faces of the democratic experiment. It will be brutal. It will be agonizing.
But I am optimistic about what it will yield. I am optimistic that, through the most searing
stress tests, that the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy will prevail and,
perhaps, become even stronger.
The reason Charlottesville being a learning moment matters so much is what it says
about democracy as a project of humanity. If the human condition is improvable, it the moral
arc of the universe can be bent upward, then we do have something to work for beyond our
self-interest or gratification.
That’s why nationalism is so dangerous. It’s not whether America is great. It’s whether
we can make the human condition great. I am not cynical about our capacity to improve
through self-government. I don’t believe might makes right or that the best performer should
win the day. That’s why learning from Charlottesville matters so much.
And, that is why I’m optimistic that Charlottesville will help open a new chapter for a
more hopeful, inclusive, and just democracy.
Thank you again for having me, and may you all have an easy fast.