I thought I could do it, but I was wrong. I thought that I could ignore the flood of breaking news and continue with my previously planned post on an unrelated subject. But the news bulletins and youtube clips kept coming, bringing with them the steadily increasing temptation to jump into the fray. I managed to ignore the dangerous escalation of the American conflict with North Korea. It’s not the first time, after all, that we’ve heard bellicose rhetoric from a North Korean dictator, and there’s no obvious Jewish angle to the story.
Neither of those objections applies, however, to the violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. Given the potent mixture of human interest, history, and politics, this news story — and the deeply flawed President who has now become its primary focus — has proven impossible to ignore. Can this really be happening?
The course of events in Charlottesville should horrify all decent people. The violence broke out at a “Unite the Right” rally organized by a group of neo-Nazis, KKKers, white supremacists, and other assorted bigots, who are commonly grouped together under the label “alt.-right.” The rally took place in Charlottesville to enable the racist organizers to take advantage of a local controversy involving the proposed removal of a statue of the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee.
Shortly after the rally began, its supporters confronted an anti-racist counter-demonstration. During the ensuing scuffle, Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville resident who was peacefully participating in the counter-demonstration, was killed when a car, driven by a 20-year-old white supremacist from Ohio, deliberately plowed into a group of peaceful counter-demonstrators, killing her and injuring an additional nineteen people, several seriously.. (Two other fatalities resulted from a helicopter crash that killed two policemen who were using the helicopter to help monitor the crowd. The cause of the crash, as far as I know, has not been determined.) The deliberate use of a car as a lethal weapon was reminiscent of the terrorist attack in London near the Houses of Parliament last March, except that the London incident was perpetrated by an Islamic terrorist while the perpetrator of the Charlottesville attack came from a white American. His ideology — to the extent he had one — appears to have a neo-Nazi pedigree.
The horror that all decent people feel at the violence in Charlottesville has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding President Trump’s responses to it. His initial statement equivocated, condemning the violence but avoiding any condemnation of racism, white supremacists or the alt-right, which he appaently believes to be an important component of his base. It took another 48 hours before the President could bring himself to read another statement, obviously written by his advisors, unequivocally condemning the alt-right. It has since been reported that the statement Trump read on Monday had been prepared by the President’s aides before he addressed the nation on Saturday, but he chose not to use it.
But the worst was yet to come. On Tuesday, five days after the Charlottesville attacks, Trump read a prepared statement concerning his plans for infrastructure investment, which is among the least controversial of his priorities. He was not expected to take questions, but he “went rogue,” as some of his staff members put it (not for attribution, of course) and decided on his own to take a few questions. He may have expected reporters to ask about his infrastructure plans, but the press, not surprisingly, was more interested in talking about Charlottesville, and most of their questions were directed toward that subject.
The reporters no doubt hoped that the President would provide them with a newsworthy quote or two, but I doubt that they expected what they ended up hearing: a clear attribution of moral equivalence between the alt.-right and the counter-protesters, whom Trump referred to as the “alt.-left.”
But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
He did condemn the most egregious act of violence,
the driver of the car [who] is a disgrace to himself, his family and his country. And that is — you can call it terrorism. You can call it murder.
With respect to the other participants in the racist rally, however, the President was more equivocal:
Those people — all of those people — excuse me. I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.
When asked about the alt-right, Trump first reacted as if he’d never heard the term, asking the reporter to define it. He then asked:
[W]hat about the alt-left that came charging them? Excuse me. What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right?
He reiterated that there was fault on both sides and seemed to blame the counter-protesters for the violence. He even expressed sympathy for the defenders of the Robert E. Lee statue.
In what may have been the most bizarre statement of the press conference, he defended the delay in releasing his second statement by claiming that “[w]hen I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts.” Somehow his supposedly meticulous concern for factual accuracy has managed to pass unnoticed during both the campaign and the first months of his presidency?
I’m not sure what has been more remarkable in the days since President Trump’s ill-fated press conference, the number of Republicans and conservatives who have criticized his response — or the number who have not. Both Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell promptly issued critical statements, as did Mitt Romney, both former Presidents Bush and Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain, among others.
The conservative talk show world, on the other hand, has mostly remained loyal to the President. Such luminaries as Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Laura Ingram have continued to staunchly defend the President and instead blamed the mainstream media for the ensuing firestorm. Ben Shapiro, founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire, has been an honorable exception, showing himself to be a principled conservative, an increasingly rare species, Having spent much energy fighting against the alt-right, he is under no illusions as to the danger of legitimizing them. He referred to Trump’s pandering to the alt.-right as “morally egregious” and his claimed concern for factual accuracy as “just a joke.”
Is Charlottesville the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s presidency? Only time will tell. He continues to lose support in Congress, in his party’s leadership ranks, and among the general public, as measured by the polls. This latest escapade, moreover, has eroded his support even among business leaders. In the wake of the Charlottesville controversy, he was forced to abandon two recently created advisory councils after prominent business leaders who had previously agreed to serve raced for the exits lest they be tainted by association with an administration likely to be seen as soft on racism.
Some Jews appear to believe that we have no dog in this fight, but that is a dangerous delusion. It is true that few Jews have much of an emotional investment, one way or the other, in the fate of Robert E. Lee’s statues or the display of the Confederate battle flag, but those are not the main issue. The alt-right leadership (David Duke, Richard Spencer, et al.) is openly anti-Semitic and makes no effort to hide it. One of the chants picked up by the crowd at the Charlottesville rally was: “Jews will not replace us.” The implications of that chant should frighten us.
Jews may not currently be the primary target of this coalition of bigots, but history suggests that can change quickly. In a country where much of the white working class feels aggrieved and Jews are disproportionately affluent, it might not take much for a charismatic populist to persuade the masses that Jews are somehow at fault. Today we may take comfort from the presence of Jared Kushner, an observant Jew and the President’s son-in-law, in the corridors of power, but if, as seems likely, the Trump presidency is ultimately a failure, is it really so hard to imagine Kushner as the scapegoat of choice in the alt-right’s next narrative of hate?
Yes I know, many in the most active and committed segment of our community have become accustomed to seeing threats to Jewish interests as coming exclusively from the left side of the political spectrum. We have become frustrated, moreover, by those politically liberal Jews who are dismissive of accusations of anti-Semitism directed at those on the left, particularly in the African-American community. Bigotry, whether of the right or the left, should never be given a free pass.
I do not intend this to be a cry of despair, but rather a counsel of prudence. The Jewish experience in America has been remarkable not only for the extent of our economic prosperity here, but also for the consistency with which our country has fulfilled its promise of full and equal citizenship for all. Both gratitude and enlightened self-interest dictate that we should help this country fulfill its promise to those of our fellow citizens who have not fully shared in it.
The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. Josef Stalin was not magically transformed into a friend of the Jews merely because the Red Army was battling against the Wehrmacht, and the alt-right is not our friend merely because it currently finds it more convenient to focus its attacks on Muslims rather than Jews. Unlike some of the more raucous voices in our community, I do not pretend to know God’s party affiliation. I strongly believe, however, that in the long run, we would be wiser to entrust our safety to the democratic instincts of the American people rather than to the babble of bigots.