The President, who grudgingly condemned US neo-Nazi groups Monday, promptly tore up the script written for him by political staff and decided to double down on his defense of protesters Tuesday night,
intensifying his effort to draw a moral equivalency between racists and the people who fight them.
I watched it all from my apartment in Amsterdam, just a few blocks from one of the most poignant monuments to the horrors of Nazi rule: the house where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis
. As I write I can hear the church bells of the nearby Westertoren, a sound Anne described in her diary as comforting.
She was eventually discovered and sent to her death at Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp.
This is the historical backdrop against which Europeans hear the US President's words.
Trump wants to make the discussion about statues. But this is not about statues. Monuments are symbols there to help us understand history and how we want it to guide our future. What matters is what course our history will take.
For Europeans, it is inconceivable that the President of the United States would find any ambiguity in a contest between Nazis and their opponents.
After all, many Europeans had to make a decision when fascist forces swept across borders and took control of their countries. Years before the rise of Hitler, Europeans had seen small far-right extremist groups. They didn't take them very seriously. Few people thought it could end in such a catastrophe.
But one of those groups, one that had been laughed off in Germany in the 1920s, mocked for the histrionics of its cartoonish leader with a tiny mustache, ended up taking power. Hitler and his followers -- who viewed nonwhites as inferior, who blamed Jews for all the world's ills, who vowed to make Germany great again -- all but destroyed this continent.
No, I'm not saying
Trump is Hitler. And I'm not saying America today is Germany in the 1930s. History may not repeat, and it may not even rhyme, despite the many troubling parallels.
Perhaps Trump really believes the problem is whether or not statues should be removed. Maybe, just maybe, he simply doesn't have a good grasp of what those Nazi flags in Charlottesville, Virginia -- the swastika waving in the land of Thomas Jefferson -- truly represent.
It might be helpful for him to take an instructional visit in Europe. In Amsterdam, he might go see a small, modest statue, the Dockworker. It honors Dutch workers who went on strike against German occupiers in February 1941, protesting the oppressive rules against Dutch Jews imposed by the Nazis. Many Dutch people joined the Nazis; many more looked the other way. But others fought them, forcefully.
In the end, only 27%
of Dutch Jews survived in a country where the community dated back centuries and numbered about 140,000.
Trump, who is concerned about the culture wars, may be interested in visiting Amsterdam's Homomonument
just behind the Anne Frank House, honoring the thousands of homosexuals killed by the Nazis.
It's a pity that when Trump went to Poland he became the first US President
since 1989 visiting that country who failed to visit the Warsaw Ghetto, the site of the 1943 uprising by Jewish insurgents who were able to fight against the Nazis for a full month before the revolt was put down, inspiring an even larger revolt.
Maybe the President doesn't know how some of the worst events in history began slowly. Maybe he doesn't realize how encouraging and emboldening radicals can end in disaster. It would be helpful, when he offers his defense of American racists, if he learned how the Nazis started. In the 1920s they wrote about their ideas. Reasonable people, thought they were beneath contempt. A decade
later they rose to power, starting with minority support, dismantling freedoms, turning discrimination into law then, ultimately, murdering millions.
Nazi horrors seem beyond comprehension in 2017, but hatred has resurfaced across Europe and in other places since the fall of the Nazis, showing how fragile the fabric of society truly is.
I've been thinking about the people I met in Bosnia in the 1990s. I became friends with Haris Hurem when I hired him to become a translator for CNN in the city of Tuzla
His friends, his neighbors, he said, had never bother to find out who was Muslim or who was a Bosnian Serb. But nationalism and extremism exploded, fueled by charismatic nationalist politicians.
One day he was playing cards with his neighbors in Sarajevo when police broke in, checked their documents and arrested those with Muslim names. Haris had never even stepped inside a mosque in his entire life. He was taken to a concentration camp.
Neighbors started fighting neighbors, tearing apart what was once a multi-ethnic, multireligious society.
Trump's tour should include Bosnia. Perhaps he should visit the Srebrenica memorial
, to see what can happen when we fail to act against ethnic extremism.
Of course, the circumstances in Bosnia, in Nazi Germany and in the Netherlands, were very different from what is happening in the United States today. Every moment in history has its own characteristics. I am not someone who believes the United States is about to have a civil war.
But the most benign interpretation I can think of to explain Trump's failure to issue a convincing and unequivocal condemnation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis is that he doesn't understand how dangerous what he is doing truly is.
For now, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt. If ignorance really is the reason, he and the country would benefit from a European history lesson.
But if Trump really does understand what he's doing, if he really grasps what it is that he refuses to reject, then the problem is much more serious and this moment in history much more dangerous. And the choices Americans must now make are much more daunting.