A group of white supremacists – screaming racial, ethnic and misogynistic epithets – rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. One person was killed and 19 others were injured when a car sped into a group of counter-protesters.
This is what the President of the United States said about it:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.”
It’s hard to imagine a less presidential statement in a time in which the country looks to its elected leader to stand up against intolerance and hatred.
Picking a “worst” from Donald Trump’s statement – delivered from his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club – isn’t easy. But, the emphasis of “on many sides” – Trump repeated that phrase twice – is, I think, the low ebb.
Both sides don’t scream racist and anti-Semitic things at people with whom they disagree. They don’t base a belief system on the superiority of one race over others. They don’t get into fistfights with people who don’t see things their way. They don’t create chaos and leave a trail of injured behind them.
Arguing that “both sides do it” deeply misunderstands the hate and intolerance at the core of this “Unite the Right” rally. These people are bigots. They are hate-filled. This is not just a protest where things, unfortunately, got violent. Violence sits at the heart of their warped belief system.
Trying to fit these hate-mongers into the political/ideological spectrum – which appears to be what Trump is doing – speaks to his failure to grasp what’s at play here. This is not a “conservatives say this, liberals say that” sort of situation. We all should stand against this sort of violent intolerance and work to eradicate it from our society – whether Democrat, Republican, Independent or not political in the least.
What Trump failed to do is what he has always promised to do: Speak blunt truths. The people gathered in Charlottesville this weekend are white supremacists, driven by hate and intolerance. Period. There is no “other side” doing similar things here.
“Mr. President - we must call evil by its name,” tweeted Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” Tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another fellow Republican: “Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists.”
What Trump is doing – wittingly or unwittingly – is giving cover to the sort of beliefs (and I use that word lightly) on display in Charlottesville today.
Chalking it all up to a violent political rhetoric that occurs on both sides and has been around for a very long time contextualizes and normalizes the behavior of people who should not be normalized. It is not everyday political rhetoric to scream epithets at people who don’t look like you or worship like you. Trump’s right that this sort of behavior has existed on American society’s fringes for a long time – but what we as a nation, led by our presidents, have always done is call it out for what it is: radical racism that has no place in our world.
So, that’s the big one. But there are other things in Trump’s statement that are also worth calling out – most notably “not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama.”
What Trump is doing here is pre-emptively absolving himself of blame for creating a political climate in the country in which people like these “Unite the Right” demonstrators feel emboldened enough to rally in public. Not my fault, Trump is saying. There were hate groups and hate speech under Obama too!
With someone dead and more than two dozen people injured, this is, of course, not the time for assigning blame. Or for making political calculations. This is a time to say: We stand together against what we saw in Charlottesville today. Trump didn’t do that. Not even close.
Then, last but not least, is what Trump said a few paragraphs after his “on many sides” comment. Here it is:
“Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record – just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they’re coming back to our country. We’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”
Really? A pivot to an I-am-not-getting-enough-credit-for-all-the-good-I-am-doing-in-the-country line? With scenes of hatred splashed across TV screens? With someone dead?
This speech is not the time to tout your accomplishments. I mean “we’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country”? Who thought that was a good thing to say in the same speech in which Trump, theoretically, was trying to reassure people that what we all saw in Charlottesville is not, fundamentally, who we are?
That no one – starting and ending with the President – raised a red flag about tacking on a laundry list of accomplishments to a speech that should have simply condemned the behavior in Charlottesville and called to our better angels, is staggering, even for this White House.
There are moments where we as a country look to our president to exemplify the best in us. They don’t happen every day. Sometimes they don’t happen every year. But, when they do happen, we need the person we elected to lead us to, you know, lead us.
Trump did the opposite today.