President Donald Trump is playing a dangerous game and sending a muddled message.
In the wake of the ugly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week, he soft-pedalled neo-Nazi-instigated violence and rhetoric, equally blamed both sides for it, compared white supremacists to left-wing protesters and claimed there were “very fine people” in each camp.
What arrant nonsense.
Trump, whether he realizes it or not, stands guilty of having drawn moral equivalence between racists and anti-racists.
Shame on him.
The neo-Nazis and white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville to stop the planned removal of a statue of Confederate commanding general Robert E. Lee were armed to the teeth. Wearing flak jackets and helmets, they brandished semi-automatic weapons, itching for a fight with counter-protesters.
In Nazi-like fashion, these loathsome reactionaries marched through the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” and shouting “sieg heil” as they passed a synagogue.
Acting out of homicidal malice, a white supremacist sympathizer drove a car at high speed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year old woman in an unmitigated act of terrorism.
Fair-minded people will have no difficulty identifying the villains and the rogues who brought misery, embarrassment and death to this normally quiet town. Yet Trump, the president of the United States, was befuddled by the unfolding spectacle.
First, in an incredibly myopic and wrong-headed decision, he blamed “many sides” for the mayhem. Then, under pressure from his daughter and others in his inner circle, he condemned and singled out the perpetrators. Finally, in a candid moment so expressive of his real beliefs, he backtracked and reverted to form, yet again ascribing the violence to “many sides” and suggesting that the “alt-left” was responsible for the turmoil.
If he had been a true leader in whom one can place one’s trust and confidence, Trump would have issued a definitive and unambiguous condemnation of bigotry in all its forms and permutations. He most certainly would not have left the disturbing impression that he has an exalted view of some of these disgusting, despicable and dangerous people who dream of building an American version of Nazi Germany’s Third Reich.
Trump’s refusal to unequivocally denounce them in the clearest possible terms is doubtless a blot on his character as well as his presidency.
Timothy Snyder, the eminent historian and chronicler of the Holocaust, believes that Trump has emboldened these scoundrels. As he wrote in The New York Times, “The president has … provided American Nazis with three services, for which they have thanked him: He has normalized their ideology; he has excused their actions; and he has given them hope that he will blame his opponents the next time America is struck by terrorism.”
In a letter to Trump initiated by Rep. Sander Levin, 18 Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives called him out for having blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville. As they put it, “Your statements show a deep misunderstanding of history and a fundamental lack of moral compass. As the leader of our nation, it is incumbent on you to stand up to hate, not to provide legitimacy to those who violently perpetrate it.” In conclusion, the lawmakers urged Trump to “consistently and unequivocally fight against racists and antisemites.”
Aside from his apparent inability to distinguish between racists and progressives, Trump has committed one more sin. He’s come out against the removal of statues that commemorate and honor leaders of the Confederacy, which rested on a foundation of racial inequality and slavery.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he tweeted.
These statues and monuments, erected during the Jim Crow era and the 1950s, indubitably belong to the panorama of American history. But as Trump himself suggested before becoming president, they belong not in parks and public squares but in museums, like Nazi memorabilia.
James Murdoch, the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, struck exactly the right note in responding to Trump’s verbal meanderings. Pledging $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, which combats antisemitism, Murdoch said that decent Americans must always exercise “vigilance against hate and bigotry.”
He added, “I can’t even believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists. Democrats, Republicans and others must all agree on this …”
When, if ever, will Trump learn this fundamental lesson?