It is absolutely mind-boggling that President Trump, at a bizarre news conference Tuesday, doubled down on his inexcusable, irresponsible and widely criticized efforts to create a moral equivalency between the behavior of the left and the right in Charlottesville over the weekend. Can it really be true that he doesn’t see much difference between Nazis and white supremacists, on the one hand, and their opponents?
Certainly, anyone on the left or the right or anywhere else on the political spectrum who initiated violence at Saturday’s march deserves to be denounced. If the “antifa” counterprotesters threw the first punches, they were wrong to do so (although that is hardly the same as ramming a car into a crowd).
But Trump — again — missed the bigger point Tuesday, choosing once more to engage in a sort of faux evenhandedness by reiterating his claim that the blame falls “on both sides” and that the violence by the alt-right was matched by that of what he dubbed the “alt-left.” In reality, the core problem in Charlottesville was the underlying hate-filled attitudes of the mob carrying Confederate battle flags and shouting anti-Semitic and racist slogans.
Trump needs to understand that racial hatred and intolerance among some of his followers is the enduring problem here. The rally at the center of the skirmishes was called “Unite the Right,” and was intended to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee that the city of Charlottesville plans to remove, recognizing that it is a memorial to reprehensible beliefs and to the slavery system that has been rightly described as the nation’s original sin. It is not a chapter of America history to be celebrated or glorified.
At his news conference, Trump made a glib and utterly unpersuasive argument that tearing down a statue of Lee would put the U.S. on a slippery slope to … something. “This week it is Robert E. Lee, and this week Stonewall Jackson,” Trump said. “Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
What a ridiculous statement. Can the president really not distinguish between Washington and Lee? Washington was a slaveholder, to be sure, but that’s not what statues of him celebrate; they recognize him as the nation’s first president, a hero of the Revolutionary War. Lee, by contrast, left the U.S. Army to lead a rebel force that sought to dismantle the nation in a misguided and unsuccessful attempt to defend the slave system.
The racism displayed by some of Trump’s followers, and by the defenders of memorials to a romanticized past, is not an issue to be viewed through the usual left-right political prism. It should be viewed through the lens of history. The people who carried the torches through Charlottesville and chanted Nazi slogans were commemorating a genocidal ideology. White supremacists reflect the absolute worst part of our the nation’s history, as well as the country’s ongoing inability to bridge in a meaningful and sustainable way the gaps between the races.
The president has been handed several opportunities in the last few days to take a decisive stand against bigotry and hatred, and he has repeatedly declined to do so. He came close on Monday, two days too late, when he read a script denouncing racism that was clearly prepared by staffers putting words in his mouth. But he larded his comments up with self-congratulations and irrelevancies before finally denouncing the far right. And now he has retreated to his original argument that both sides share the blame.
We need as a nation to find a better way through this, and a better way to counter the soul-sickening ideas and beliefs represented by the neo-Nazis and racists who have floated on Trump’s tailwind to the main stage of American political discourse.
Unfortunately, we may not receive help from the White House. The Trump we saw and heard Saturday and Tuesday — ignorant, combative, intemperate — is the president we elected.