If President Donald Trump cannot bring himself to explicitly condemn an act of domestic terror perpetrated against anti-racism protesters in Virginia, one must question not only whether he is capable of bringing Americans together as one nation, but whether he even intends to try
What hath identity politics wrought?
That was the question that stuck in my mind as I sat and watched footage of the far right and Antifa protests in Charlottesville, Virginia today, culminating in that heinous act of domestic terrorism where a car rammed a group of counterprotesters at high speed, killing one and injuring nineteen – a deliberate copy of the kind of low-tech attack perpetrated by radical Islamist extremists recently in Europe.
As part of my media monitoring watching this story develop, I spent some time tuned into a livestream report from Alt-Right conspiracy site Infowars. Their reporter was embedded with a group of Alt-Right protesters who had been dispersed by the police and were trying to regroup. Several of them openly admitted to being racist on camera. A couple spoke about the conspiracy of “international Jewry”, while others just barked the name George Soros over and over again. One talked about the demographic timebomb that threatened America when Texas finally turns into a Blue state due to Hispanic immigration. Lots seemed to want a complete shutdown of all immigration, legal and illegal. And all this on top of the images we have seen of protesters bearing swastikas and making Nazi salutes.
Nobody is covering themselves in glory at this point – not the far Right white supremacist protesters, not the more extreme Antifa elements of the counterprotest, not the news media, not people on Twitter and certainly not the President of the United States.
Many people have made the point that the Left’s obsession with identity politics has helped to fuel the white nationalist/supremacist backlash we are now seeing from the far Right. They’re not wrong. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the relentless growth of identity politics, aided and abetted by cynical left-wing politicians, has certainly put rocket boosters on right wing extremist sentiment.
But none of that matters in the moments after a car is driven at speed into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, in what can only be described as an act of domestic terrorism. At that point it doesn’t matter whether the counterprotesters were trying to suppress the free speech of the far Right, or whether their own leftist ideology is flawed. At that point, these discussions should be put on hold, to be relitigated after we have condemned this singular and abhorrent act of violence.
If there was a time for Donald Trump to step up and show that whatever his flaws he could be president of all Americans, this was it. He failed that test, making a statement consisting of weasel words that condemned violence “on all sides” but without mentioning the focal violent incident of the day.
Remember: this is a president who is happy to shoot his mouth off on Twitter about terror attacks in distant lands, offering certainty and condemnation even before the facts are fully established (and sometimes getting it plain wrong in the process). This is a president who can be frighteningly specific when a particular person or group has roused his anger – when he wants to be. As one Twitter user noted, it would have been nice to hear the President of the United States condemn the mowing down of protesters with the same stridency and tone he uses to attack the likes of Rosie O’Donnell or any of the other celebrities he likes to feud with.
But instead Trump said this:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
Well yes, there were certainly acts of bigotry and violence committed by Antifa and others among the counterprotesters. But to paint any kind of equivalence when violence from one side has resulted in death and multiple injury is morally questionable, and politically self-destructive.
There exists a preset media narrative that the Trump White House is staffed with people who are white nationalists at best, and white supremacists at worse. This is mostly media hysteria – while Trump certainly made racist comments during the presidential campaign (not least of which suggesting that Judge Gonzalo Curiel would be incapable of ruling fairly in a Trump University pre-trial hearing because his Mexican heritage would create bias because of Trump’s border wall policy) he has not yet taken any executive action which a reasonable person could construe as being motivated by white supremacist leanings.
Nonetheless, Trump should have realised – and probably was fully aware – that anything less than irreproachable behaviour on his part on any issue touching race would be jumped on by political opponents and the media, bogging his administration’s agenda down and giving Americans just cause to fear that their president was in fact not equally concerned with the welfare of all citizens regardless of race.
And yet when given the lowest of hurdles to jump over – unambiguously criticising violence committed by white supremacist protesters – Trump failed to clear the bar, instead preferring to issue a meandering blanket condemnation of violence which was never going to be enough to satisfy the politicians, media outlets and commentators sniffing for blood.
Why not? Well, to my mind there are only two potential explanations. Firstly, Trump did not specifically condemn the white supremacists because he sympathises with their cause. Or secondly, Trump does not agree with (or is ambivalent about) their cause, but values the votes and political support of this subgroup too much to risk displeasing them by making an overt criticism.
In the first instance, this would make Donald Trump utterly depraved and unworthy of political support from any decent elected official. And in the second instance, this would make the President of the United States a coward for failing to risk taking a political hit in order to tell the kind of harsh truths and specific admonishment to the far Right that much of America needed to hear. Complicity in racism or rank political cowardice – neither characteristic befits the office of president.
Rod Dreher gets it right:
Trump’s response to the racist rally has been — how to put this? — underwhelming. No, I’m sorry, it’s not “underwhelming”. It’s disgusting. And given that professional racist David Duke invoked Trump’s name favorably at Friday night’s rally, Trump has every reason in the world to condemn this rally and its attendees in no uncertain terms. But he didn’t do it.
[..] Yes, we can and should talk about how left-wing racism and antifa violence are feeding this right-wing racism and violence. But that can come later. Today, all that needs to be said is: these white thugs who desecrated Charlottesville today are evil, and must be condemned and resisted by all decent people. And also, by the American president.
The National Review’s Rich Lowry also makes a fair point:
I don’t have a problem with Trump condemning both sides, since both sides resorted to violence. And he did denounce bigotry and hatred. But I agree that it was mealy-mouthed and wrong not to specifically name and slam the white supremacists whose march was the precipitating event here. Putting aside the merits, if you are a president people suspect is allied with the nastiest forces on the right, you should leap at the opportunity to denounce violent white nationalists. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Trump takes a second bite at the apple sometime soon, but this shouldn’t be so hard.
While Michael Brendan Dougherty is even more appalled:
This weekend in Charlottesville Richard Spencer organized his “Unite The Right” march. David Duke was there too. Fights broke out between the demonstrating racists and the people protesting them. A motorist driving a Dodge muscle car rammed into a group of anti-racist protestors, injuring several and killing at least one.
Even if you believe as I do, that Spencer’s form of white nationalism is a marginal movement granted far too much attention, the sight of hundreds of unmasked young men marching through Charlottesville with torches and chanting racist slogans inspires genuine fear in many Americans. Trump was given a chance to speak to that fear today, and to offer the same moral condemnation and deflation he’s given others. Instead he essentially repeated his disgraceful half-disavowal of Duke. He refused to call out these white supremacists by name, and condemn them. He merely condemned “all sides.” An energetic law and order president who had any sense of the divisions in his country would have announced today that he was instructing his Justice Department to look into the people in these groups, and zealously ferret out and prosecute any crimes they turned up.
This is a target-rich environment. Some of these scummy racists in Charlottesville wore chainmail, others went around shouting their devotion to Adolf Hitler. A president with Trump’s intuitive sense of depravity should be able to call them what they are: evil losers. More pathetic: evil cosplayers. Just as Spencer took Trump’s “I disavow” without a direct object to be a kind of wink in his direction, surely he’ll take today’s statement about “all sides” as another form of non-condemnation. With his performance today, Trump confirms the worst that has been said about him. He’s done damage to the peace of his country. What a revolting day in America.
What stubborn obstinacy exists within Donald Trump that makes him unable to do the sensible thing, to follow the path of least resistance, time and time again? Trump knows that his every statement and every tweet will be parsed by the media, many of whom are actively antagonistic to his agenda (see CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s preening, virtue-signalling battle with Stephen Miller over immigration at a recent press briefing). So why feed them more ammunition? Surely Trump knows that given widespread concerns about his attitudes to race, he needs to be whiter than white (if you’ll pardon the pun)?
More importantly, Trump should realise that criticisms of identity politics from his administration and other conservatives will be even less likely to get a fair hearing than would otherwise be the case, so long as he refuses to condemn white nationalist violence with the same zeal that he criticises violence committed by other identitarian movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Maybe somebody smarter than me can come up with a better and less worrying theory as to why Trump deliberately avoided the path of least resistance when making his statement. But to my mind, the only reason the president would refuse to explicitly condemn white nationalist violence – when he knew that the entire country was watching and waiting for him to do so – is because there is a certain constituency he is sufficiently keen to keep on-side that he is willing take the political hit for issuing a mealy-mouthed, non-specific condemnation of the violence in Charlottesville.
There is an exceedingly unpleasant subgroup within Donald Trump’s support base that holds utterly abhorrent views which need to be acknowledged and confronted, not just by ordinary grassroots conservatives or sycophantic GOP politicians but by Trump himself. And every day that the president fails to denounce that racist element, what little moral authority he has left will continue to ebb away.
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