"We will not be replaced!" It sounds like the rallying cry of Luddites smashing machines, fighting the inevitable forces of progress. Instead, it was the chant ringing out over Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend as white nationalists assembled to defend the statue of Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate Army in rebellion against the US during the Civil War.

Getty Images

The chant itself is pathetic. By the time someone's shouting "we will not be replaced!" odds are they already have been. That's not entirely true of white men in America (see the recent ascendance of a grossly unqualified white man to the top political position in the country). But it is true that the vision of white nationalism that comes wrapped in Confederate and Nazi flags – the vision of white nationalism on display in Charlottesville this weekend – is a last-ditch effort to grab a rapidly disappearing past.

That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't important.

The vision of white nationalism that comes wrapped in Confederate and Nazi flags – the vision of white nationalism on display in Charlottesville this weekend – is a last-ditch effort to grab a rapidly disappearing past.

For one thing, the white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville cannot be considered fringe extremists, not so long as Donald Trump is in the White House. Consider his administration: Senior adviser Steve Bannon, who turned his right-wing website Breitbart into an outlet for the alt-right. Deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, who has spent his career enmeshed with the Hungarian neo-Nazi group Vitezi Rend. Senior adviser Stephen Miller, who spent time with alt-right leader Richard Spencer in college and now is the administration's leading advocate of restrictions on legal immigration. If the white nationalists at Charlottesville were fringe, so too is the President of the United States.

More than that, though, the battle for Charlottesville is part of a broader fight, one that has been raging in the US since its inception. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, explained this centuries-long battle by focusing on Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Jefferson, a slaveholder who advocated radical notions of equality, stands in as the father of both sides of the battle for Charlottesville: the white nationalists see him as the forerunner to the Confederacy, and the protesters as the originator of that most dangerous idea, that all men are created equal.

The battles over towns like Charlottesville are even more important, not because protesters meet violence with violence, but because even in the face of violence, they choose Jefferson's other vision for America, one of radical equality and hope in the future.

It's the contradiction at the heart of the US. A country built to protect and advance the interests of white men, it also introduced the radical notion of universal natural rights: inherent, inalienable, absolute. The tragedy of American history is that both spring from the nation's founding, giving legitimacy to two irreconcilable sides. Anyone keen on an originalist argument can find a backer in the founding. Americans can draw their lineage through Jefferson and Lee and George Wallace or through Jefferson and Lincoln and Obama, and both routes lead to Charlottesville, and the bloody clash on Saturday.

Which is not to draw an equivalence, to argue that the neo-Nazis and the protesters came to Emancipation Park, home of the Lee statue, as equals. The white nationalists came ready for a fight, evidenced by their torchlit march across the University of Virginia campus. They descended on the statue of Thomas Jefferson, where a small contingent of students staged an anti-racist protest. White nationalists assaulted them with mace, then torches.

The Friday night attacks made clear the agenda for Saturday. By the time I arrived at Emancipation Park, ground zero for the battle for Charlottesville, the fight was already raging. The "rally", such as it was, wasn't supposed to start for another hour. It never took place, but then again, a staid event with a handful of neo-Nazi speakers wasn't really the plan. This was: armed white men hurling bottles and pipes, squirting pepper spray and mace, whipping chains and brandishing guns.

They were there to smash the forces of progress, as represented by the protesters calling for tolerance, peace, and inclusion. That may sound like the outlines of a fable, a clear-cut fairytale with a tidy moral message. But that was also the reality in Charlottesville. When one side is comprised of well-armed white nationalists and neo-Nazis, the other side has a lock on the moral high ground.

It's easy to get distracted by the car-ramming attack that happened after, to boil down the violence to that one moment, that one person. But a violent defence of white power was the engine of the day, revving back to life every time the conflict seemed about to die down.

In a broader sense, that engine has been propelling American history for centuries, driving slavery, segregation, the exclusion of women from politics and work. It's growing obsolete now – hopefully – but those Americans wedded to white supremacy won't let it go. They'll fight, park by park, statue by statue, crowd by crowd, to ensure they're not replaced. Given that they have the White House, the battles over towns like Charlottesville are even more important, not because protesters meet violence with violence, but because even in the face of violence, they choose Jefferson's other vision for America, one of radical equality and hope in the future.