Jen Psaki: America should not be surprised at Trump's Charlottesville remarks
She says in the absence of moral leadership from Oval Office, leadership will have to come from citizens in their communities
Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator and spring fellow at the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She also was a consultant for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Follow her: @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
America – why are you surprised? The Donald Trump who on Saturday and again on Tuesday drew an equivalency between the “very fine people” (his words) among those protesting with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and those that opposed this event as an affront to America’s foundations is the same Donald Trump millions of people supported and the electoral college put in the White House.
Trump failed to condemn white supremacists and blamed “many sides” for the violence that erupted when a group of white nationalists and neo-Nazis gathered in Virginia this weekend to march and protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. And even after a car plowed through a crowd, killing a woman, Trump still failed to approach this moment with much needed presidential leadership.
And after his White House team, including the vice president and the chief of staff, reportedly spent two days convincing him to read a carefully worded statement on Monday, by Tuesday he reiterated what is clearly his point of view. Anyone with a moral compass knows he is flat out wrong and the criticism of his statement has been nearly universal. But was it shocking?
During the campaign, then candidate Trump verbally attacked a Mexican American judge born in Indiana, suggesting he was biased in lawsuit against the candidate because Trump wanted to build a wall to keep out Mexicans at the border.
He also attacked the Muslim American father of a fallen soldier.
He fat-shamed a former Miss Universe.
And long before that, he questioned whether former President Barack Obama was born in the United States. His chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is arguably a sympathizer with white supremacists. The President has never hidden any of this. In fact, he has been remarkably consistent.
The events in Charlottesville brought me back to the hours after the election results in November.
There is a photo from the morning after, in the White House Rose Garden. A group of staff, myself included, wore looks of anger, of sadness and even of disgust on our faces. And that is how we felt.
But it wasn’t because we were calculating the impact of the election on Obama’s legacy. It wasn’t because we were sad for Hillary Clinton and her team. Those emotions came later.
That day we were worried for our colleagues, for our friends and neighbors. For people who were Muslim-American, African-American, LGBT-American – because they were asking us what Trump’s election meant for them. And the truth is we didn’t know.
And we were questioning the sense of optimism we had had about the progress of the country. Not because we had thought that racism and sexism had been eradicated, or because we thought the first African-American President had it in his power to banish bias and discrimination by sitting in the Oval Office.
We were alarmed that millions of people had ignored racism and misogyny when they voted. Not because they were racist or sexist themselves – for the most part. But because those things didn’t amount to deciding factors for them.
President Obama often quoted Martin Luther King Jr. when he said the “moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.” We still have to believe that. Because there have been worse moments in our history, and the events in Charlottesville were hardly the first indication to the African American community that racism endures in the United States.
The difference today is that most modern presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, have been forces for good, for unity, for acceptance. And we are now faced with a big question. If the President of the United States is not serving in that role, then who is the moral compass that people can look to for guidance, for leadership?
As a white woman who was raised Catholic, I have never experienced the fear felt by many African-Americans, nor by those in the Jewish community and many other minority communities in the United States. But this is not just an argument that we should rely on communities that feel threatened to make. We all have a role to play.
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Republicans in Congress should continue to speak out – not just against the remarks of the President, but to their communities. They need to convey that they see their role as governing all people, that they stand for the equality and the safety of all. In the same way, business leaders have a role to play in making clear that associating themselves with the President is not in the interests of their products or their brands.
In the absence of moral leadership from the Oval Office, many of us may feel adrift, rudderless. This means that moral leadership is going to have to come from citizens in communities and not from the leader of the country.
So for those who feel powerless, who want to stick their head under their blanket and pillow, for those who don’t want to be political, force yourself to watch this for a sobering reminder of the hatred and anger that is out there, pick a company with a CEO still on the President’s business council to reach out to and find your place to have your voice heard. It will make you feel less powerless.