Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, a fellow-blogger, has recently published “Donald Trump: Mensch?” His answer to his own question is thunderously negative.
I am not qualified to say who is or is not worthy of the honorific “mensch,” and it happens that I don’t agree with much of Rabbi Hammerman’s op-ed. There is, however, one statement that jumps off the page as important and indisputable. He writes: “If demonstrably false claims are allowed to stand without refutation, they gain credibility.” I want to focus on one demonstrably false claim that Rabbi Hammerman trumpets.
One reason that Pres. Trump is not a mensch, according to Rabbi Hammerman, is that “to this day [the president] has not retracted his abominable comments post-Charlottesville.” The rabbi refers, of course, to the president’s statement, made during a press conference on August 15, 2017, that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of one person and subsequent murder charges against the alleged killer.
Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” statement has become notorious on the progressive side of the political spectrum–so much so that literally the first words of Joe Biden’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency were: “Charlottesville, Virginia.” Mr. Biden claimed Pres. Trump had asserted a moral equivalence between white supremacists and neo-Nazis, on the one hand, and those who oppose bigotry and hatred, on the other. He goes on to say that that false equivalence was his primary reason for entering the race.
I think both Rabbi Hammerman, who called Trump’s comments “abominable,” and Joe Biden, who said those comments asserted a moral equivalence between those who hate and those who oppose hatred, have distorted Trump’s comments in a way that no fair-minded person would ever do. So, let’s look at what Pres. Trump actually said.
(A video of the portion of Pres. Trump’s August 15, 2017 press conference that deals with the Charlottesville riot is here. The video is approximately 16 minutes long. The transcript that follows, which I created, begins at 10:45 of the video and ends at 13:14. The “very fine people on both sides” remark is in bold-face, for ease of reference; also in bold-face, again only for ease of reference, is part of Trump’s next response.)
Reporter: The neo-Nazis started this thing; they showed up in Charlottesville to protest….
Trump: Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves down as neo-, and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group—excuse me, excuse me—I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from “Robert E. Lee” to another name.
Trump: No, George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down—excuse me—are we going to take down, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Cause he was a major slave-owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So, you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people—and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally—but you had many people in that group, other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay, and the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also you had some fine people, but you also had trouble-makers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad, you had a lot of bad people in the other group, too.
Reporter: Sir, I just want to understand what you’re saying. You’re saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? I just want to understand what you’re saying.
Trump: No, no. There were people in that rally—and I looked the night before—if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people—neo-Nazis, white nationalists—whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest. Because—I don’t know if you know—they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So, I only tell you this: there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country
Now, no one (including me) would argue that Trump speaks extemporaneously with perfect clarity and precision. His references to “that group,” “the other group,” and “both sides” can leave one wondering what or who he is talking about. Still, one thing is certain: at the 11:48 mark in the video, 52 seconds after his “very fine people on both sides” comment (which begins at the 10:56 mark), Pres. Trump says, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.”
Thus, it is absolutely clear that, when Trump referred to “very fine people on both sides,” he was referring to people who, in his understanding, were in Charlottesville peacefully and lawfully protesting the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and the renaming of a park. If there was any confusion when he first made the “very fine people on both sides” remark, that confusion was dispelled after less than a minute–52 seconds, to be exact–had passed.
There were several thousand people demonstrating in Charlottesville over the course of that fatal weekend. Perhaps both Rabbi Hammerman and Joe Biden know for a fact that not a single one of those persons was there solely to protest the renaming of the park and the removal of the statue, without any belief in neo-Nazi or white supremacist ideology. (I don’t know how they would know that–did they interview each one of those thousands of demonstrators? But, let’s assume they did know it.) Even if every member of “the other group” was a bigoted, hateful racist, all that would establish is that Pres. Trump was mistaken in thinking that some demonstrators were protesting only the removal and renaming; it could never establish that Trump asserted a moral equivalence. This could never be established because Trump explicitly, unequivocally stated: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.”
It may be that Rabbi Hammerman believes that people who protest the proposed removal of a Confederate monument could never be “very fine people,” and that Joe Biden believes that protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee makes one a white nationalist and/or a neo-Nazi. But, no one whose head is screwed on straight believes either of those things.
Clearly, it has become a dogmatic article of faith among liberals and progressives that Pres. Trump said something inappropriate–or, to use Rabbi Hammerman’s over-the-top terminology, “abominable”–about the clashes in Charlottesville. And it might well be that the plain, unvarnished truth will never be sufficient to dissuade them. That would be disappointing.