WASHINGTON, August 14, 2017 — When President Trump first remarked on the violence unleashed in Charlottesville, Virginia by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and alt-right white nationalists, he decried intolerance on “many sides.” The words “white supremacists” were notably lacking.
He has been widely criticized for this omission, not least by members of his own party. Sen Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, “My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said,”These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House. I don’t know why they believe that, but they don’t see me as a friend in the Senate, and I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he’s their friend.”
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., urged the president to speak out directly on the issue and “call this white supremicism, white nationalism evil.” He said the president should do so with the same kind of conviction that he has had in “naming terrorism around the globe as evil.”
If President Trump is not a friend of the extremist groups which converged on Charlottesville, for some reason they think that he is. At an alt-right rally in Washington shortly after Trump’s election, one of the leaders this movement, Richard Spencer, raised his arm in a Nazi salute and declared, “Hail Trump.”
Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke said in Charlottesville:
“We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.”
Trump’s statement decrying intolerance on “many sides” was viewed as a virtual endorsement by the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
“He (Trump) didn’t attack us. He refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
If these groups are wrong to think they have a friend in the White House, Trump can easily disabuse them of this view. He doesn’t hesitate to denounce members of his own party, including Sen. McConnell and Attorney General Sessions. He called former FBI Director James Comey a “nut job,” and for years promoted the notion that President Obama was born outside of the country.
He is not shy about telling us what he thinks. If he were offended by those who brought their hatred to Charlottesville, we could expect from his habit of tweeting attacks at actors, journalists, and politicians that he would let us know.
Many people, including many Republicans, believe that Trump has encouraged extremism while not personally sharing the extremists’ views, nor any particular political philosophy at all. Many Republicans have just gone along. “I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of the ‘privately wincing’ Republicans,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations. “It’s a self-incriminating silence.”
Running a divisive campaign, and embarking upon a divisive administration, has consequences. Many believe that the re-emergence of a racist white supremacist movement at this time could not have occurred without the encouragement it has received. This is the view of Charlottesville’s Mayor, Democrat Michael Signer.
“Look at the campaign he ran,” he said of Trump. “Look at the intentional courting, on one hand, of all these white supremacists, white nationalists – and look on the other hand at the repeated failure to step up, condemn, denounce, silence, put to bed all of these different efforts. This isn’t hard. You are seeing a direct line from what happened this weekend to those choices… What I did not hear in the president’s statement, well-intentioned as it may have been, I didn’t hear the words ‘white supremacy.’ And I think it’s important to call this for what it is.”
Appeals to racial division, whether subtle or overt, have a long history in our country. Many hoped we had moved beyond this, and most of us have. But the strange and divisive campaign embarked upon by Donald Trump seems to have given it new life.
Did he think that talk of “America First,” building walls, attacking immigrants and Muslims would not have consequences? He may not have intended these consequences, and may not be a bigot himself at all, but what he unleashed is what we saw in Charlottesville.
Many years ago Lyndon Johnson explained how the appeal to racial division works:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best-colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
The day after the violence in Charlottesville, President Trump remained silent. Yet, his daughter Ivanka tweeted, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis.”
1:2 There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) August 13, 2017
UPDATE: The president made a strong statement today saying we must unite from hate, bigotry, and violence and he distanced America and Americans from these group. He said that bigotry and violence, that groups like the KKK and white supremacists are “…repugnant to all people.”
He also stated that anyone who promotes violence will be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
His lack of an early statement may echo the fact that following the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, he did not come out and make a statement decrying liberal hate groups and ANTIFA.
Republicans have declared that hate groups are not part of the Republican base:
Sen. Cory Gardner said of white supremacists,
“We don’t want them in our base, they shouldn’t be in a base, we shouldn’t call them part of a base.”
Conservatives have always recognized the fragility of society, and how easily it can be torn asunder. The goal of conservatives has always been to transmit to the future the values we have inherited from our ancestors and to build upon them.
In our democratic system, respect for our adversaries is an essential ingredient, as is the willingness to negotiate our differences and compromise. Civility is an essential element of a civilized society. Republicans used to view themselves as the Conservative party. To the extent that they have embraced Donald Trump and his bombastic divisiveness, they have turned their backs on that tradition.
White supremacists think they have a friend in the White House, as David Duke, Richard Spencer and others have told us. But what they think, or want, is not necessarily the truth. But it is President Trump’s responsibility to make this clear to all. This is a difficult challenge. We will wait to see if his latest remarks are enough to silence his critics.