Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
Peniel Joseph: The President's "on all sides" comment implying a moral equivalency between hate groups and anti-racist protesters is grotesque
Trump did not invent nation's racially divisive politics, but he and his party have taken expert advantage of divisions
The roiling spectacle of racial violence that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday leaving three people dead – one killed when a car plowed into a crowd and two Virginia State Police officers who died in a helicopter crash – represents the culmination of naked appeals by an American president and a major political party to the most shameful aspects of our nation’s history.
The sight of white supremacist demonstrators waving tiki torches in a postmodern display of racial terror on the University of Virginia campus on Friday foreshadowed Saturday’s demonstrations, where hundreds of so-called alt-right demonstrators, white supremacist militia groups and counter-protesters engaged in intermittent melees, verbal recriminations and raucous shoving matches that prompted Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency in Charlottesville.
President Donald Trump’s condemnations of the violence, first via Twitter and then during a press conference, strained credulity, since he owes much of his meteoric political rise to having unleashed the cruel forces of racial hatred and division on brutal display in Virginia. Republicans from House Speaker Paul Ryan to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shed similar crocodile tears, calling the hate march in Charlottesville repugnant even as they embraced President Trump – in all of his racially offensive intolerance – as the political and moral leader of the Republican Party and the nation.
Donald Trump’s assertion during his press conference that there was hatred “on many sides” in this unfolding racial crisis continues an unapologetic pattern of assaulting the truth while simultaneously emboldening known white supremacists.
Make no mistake, the President refuses to condemn in unequivocal terms the white supremacists who inflicted racial terror on innocent demonstrators because he knows the so-called alt-right is a core part of his political base. The contrast between Trump’s words and those of McAuliffe, Virginia’s Democratic governor – who offered a full-throated repudiation of the white supremacists who wreaked havoc in Charlottesville – exemplified our current lack of presidential leadership.
Pretending to find a moral equivalency between white hate groups violently protesting the removal of a Confederate statue from a city park and counter-protesting anti-racist groups is grotesque, especially in the aftermath of the lives lost in Charlottesville.
Former Ku Klux Klan leader turned politician David Duke stated Trump’s appeal to the organizers of Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally bluntly: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
In a little more than two weeks the nation will commemorate the 54th anniversary of Dr. King’s gloriously optimistic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March On Washington. King’s words challenged the nation to fulfill its political and moral destiny by placing racial and economic justice as a core part of the American creed, a point he had also made from the Birmingham jail the previous spring, where he urged all citizens to go back to “those great wells of democracy” that were dug deep by the Founding Fathers.
The Civil Rights Movement worked in creative tension with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom at key moments publicly supported the movement and in the process helped push history’s moral arc further toward justice, equality and citizenship for all.
There is no other time in American history of which we should be more proud.
Trump and virtually the entire GOP political establishment have taken the opposite course. From vitriolic attacks against undocumented immigrants to gratuitous and illegal suggestions that law enforcement rough up American citizens, the President has willfully abdicated the role other presidents have played as moral leaders of the nation. His choice for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has rightfully earned a reputation as a racially intolerant southern conservative bent on perpetuating, rather than eliminating, the nation’s shameful system of mass incarceration.
The racial furies on display in Virginia are rooted in the nation’s tortured history of racial slavery. Racial progress in America has always proceeded in fits and starts. The highpoint of the March On Washington existed alongside of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that left four innocent girls dead. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act taking place at almost the exact moment that three civil rights workers were martyred in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Voting rights legislation secured on practically the eve of the Watts riots the next year. And Obama’s historical presidential election gave way to the rise of Donald Trump.
Trump did not invent the nation’s racially divisive politics. Yet he, along with the entire Republican Party, has expertly taken political advantage of these divisions to set up a disturbing new political reality, where hate-filled white nationalists and anti-police brutality Black Lives Matter protesters are morally “equivalent.” While grotesque, such a characterization makes perfect sense in Trumpland, a place where promises to bring back Eisenhower-era prosperity have been replaced instead by a return to that era’s tragic race relations.