Moments like this weekend – observing the heinous events taking place in Charlottesville, VA – these types of overwhelming moments are both the easiest and, paradoxically, the hardest moments for me to express my thoughts in writing. Passions in these moments are so strong, that so many thoughts want to come spilling out at all at once, and the challenge is to just get them onto paper (or computer screen) in a somewhat coherent form.
The first portion of this post is the immediate set of thoughts I had as I was taking in that terrible scene Saturday morning, just a couple hours after the chaos in Charlottesville began, exactly as I shared them on Facebook. So the thoughts may be slightly less than coherent, but I think being able to see genuine in-the-moment reactions are often the most interesting, so I wanted to share them here as-is. The horror show of a day continued for many hours after I wrote this, and I’ll touch on that as well. Then I’m going to end this entry with the main reason I’m addressing any of this here on this blog, despite the fact that the day has already been dissected endlessly by pundits & prognosticators: I have a message for Trump supporters. But first here’s what I wrote on Facebook early in the day Saturday:
Watching a huge group of modern day Nazis/KKK take over a college town, literally beating people – including peaceful clergy members – with clubs & bats, as law enforcement mostly stands by and does nothing (nope no tear gas, no tanks, no nothing), I’m so disgusted and saddened, I really can’t put it into words. I’m disgusted by the hateful people who are participating in this behavior and I’m disgusted by our President who has unleashed it.
And no, of course Trump didn’t invent hatred, he didn’t invent racism or anti-semitism. Sadly, those things have existed as long as we have. But what he did with these pasty losers that are out there today is: he inspired them, he awakened them, he empowered them, and he united them. He showed them that their movement wasn’t a dead remnant of the past, but is in fact a powerful piece of our present – powerful enough to find its way into the White House in the form of Steve Bannon & Sebastian Gorka, into the AG’s office in the form of Jeff Sessions, into every one of Trump’s speeches in the form of Stephen Miller, and into Trump himself in each of his racist dog whistles. Once they saw that, they no longer had to remain silent, underground. Society was no longer shunning them. Nope, now they know they are on top and all bets are off. ANY and all behavior is acceptable now.
Trump’s Paltry Response
So that’s what I wrote Saturday morning. And unfortunately Trump spent the rest of Saturday living down to my expectations. First he sent a vaguely worded tweet in the early afternoon, several hours after the violence started, which said, “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” As you can see, he made no mention of white supremacists, neo-Nazis or anything along those lines. The all-caps “ALL” was his emphasis, making it pretty clear that he was spreading blame and responsibility in every direction. Soon after came this not-the-Onion tweet:
Shortly after these tweets, reports began to surface about a car plowing into a crowd of people in the area, seemingly intentionally. It didn’t take long for this reporting to be confirmed, and for the sad news to come out that one young woman was killed in this attack, and a number of other people were wounded. As the day turned every more violent and frightening, there seemed to be hope among the pundits and even many Republicans (based on comments on tv and Twitter) that Trump would redeem himself with an on-camera statement that more forcefully and directly addressed the issue.
But Trump didn’t magically turn into a new person, so when he he appeared on tv later Saturday afternoon, he said, in part:
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America.
He was reading from a prepared statement, but it’s clear from the way he looked up from the script and changed his tone of voice and mannerisms that the “many sides” phrase was an ad lib. From this, we can gather that this phrase was the most heartfelt part of Trump’s entire statement. It was apparently very important to Trump – important enough to add it in and say it an additional time for emphasis – that we all know that the hatred, bigotry and violence is not just limited to the side with the swastikas, but is in fact coming from many sides.
On a day when a large group of neo-Nazis took over a small college town, marched in carrying shields & wearing helmets, armed with guns & brass knuckles, escorted by a personal militia, the President wanted to emphasize that both sides were equally guilty. On a day when that group invaded this small college town, and people who opposed them stood up and said, “hell no, we don’t accept that here,” it was important to the President that we know both sides were to blame. On a day when the KKK in khakis entered this small college town and got their members so frothed up in anger that one of them jumped into a car and drove it at high speed into a crowd of innocent people, killing one and injuring numerous others, our President wanted to make sure we knew that all sides were guilty of violence.
I know there will be Trump supporters who say it’s not fair to blame the President for the actions of these random people in Charlottesville. But as long as he winks & nods, and is unable to condemn them loudly & clearly, he is sanctioning their actions, and they know it. We know all too well what it looks like when Trump wants to criticize someone or something – he doesn’t soft pedal it. His absolute refusal to call out these white supremacists by name – and the deflection of blame elsewhere – sends a very clear message to them, and to the rest of us, that he has their back.
And in case you’re tempted to think that was just a hastily written speech, that the critics are making too much of it, reporters who followed up with the White House repeatedly got the same purposely vague answers – answers which make an overt point of blaming everyone and never specifically naming white supremacists or white nationalists or anything of the sort.* In fact, when one reporter followed up to ask what the President meant by “many sides,” the response was that there was “violence between protestors and counter-protestors.” The White House is, in no uncertain terms, treating Saturday’s events as a simple disagreement between two sides, both equally valid, both equally at fault for the violent outcome. This behavior by Trump and his administration is morally reprehensible.
And, believe it or not, it actually gets even worse, because when pushed on the issue, the White House actually finally did choose a side, and it’s sadly not surprising which side it was. Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine reports that he asked a “senior White House official” why they didn’t denounce the white supremacists, and the official responded, “What about the leftist mob? Just as violent if not more so.” I think this makes it pretty clear where the natural sympathies of this White House lie. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo elaborates on this here.
A Message to Trump Supporters
So what’s my point? There’s been tons written and said over the last couple days about Trump’s inadequate response to this awful day. But what I want to add the conversation is this: I’ve almost entirely avoided talking on this blog about Trump’s supporters. I’ve focused on Trump himself and on elected Republicans and their role in propping him up and carrying out his (and their) agenda. I haven’t wanted to focus on Trump’s supporters/voters because I know that people choose to vote for and/or support their politicians for all sorts of reasons.
We can’t assume we understand why other people make the choices they do, and sometimes they may not even fully understand it themselves. Yes, I have thoughts about how Trump was able to sell himself to his voters in certain ways, which I’ve mentioned in one or two posts here, but beyond that, I try to stay away from it, because it’s almost impossible to talk about why people voted the way they do without making huge generalizations.
But now I want to say something to Trump supporters, and I hope they’ll be open to hearing it. You have some responsibility for this, and you have the power to stop it. I want to be clear what I mean by that. I do not mean that all, or even most, Trump supporters are racist or that they support the things that happened in Charlottesville. I know that’s not the case. I have plenty of friends and loved ones who support Trump.
I know that people voted for him for all kinds of reasons. Some people are just Republicans in their hearts & souls and couldn’t imagine voting any other way. Some people wholeheartedly believe that business tax cuts & regulatory rollback are the key to a booming economy and they will vote for the candidate that supports that, period. Other people genuinely believe that abortion is murder and they can’t abide the idea of a President who thinks otherwise. I truly get all of that, even if I don’t agree with it.
But for all of you who voted for Trump for those reasons, or others like them, and not because you’re a fan of Breitbart’s “black crime” section and not because you cheered when Trump said Mexico was sending rapists and not because you loved it when Donald J. Trump called for a ban on all Muslims, now is the time to speak up. You need to be the ones to say that what’s happening now is not acceptable. You need to be the ones to say that Trump must loudly and plainly condemn white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the alt-right. You need to be the ones to say that Trump must rid his administration of anyone who sympathizes with these causes.
We on the left can say it, the media can say it, even establishment Republicans** can say it – but all of that is just more fodder for Trump’s embattlement narrative: the idea that all the “bad guys” are out to get him, that it’s just Trump against the world. But if Trump’s supporters – the people who back him on everything else – will stand up to him on this and say that this is not okay, that might be the one thing that can move him. And even if it doesn’t move him, history will record where you stood (or didn’t) in this moment.
And if you can’t do speak up now, if you have nothing to say on this egregious moral failing by the man who is supposed to be our leader, then I don’t want to hear complaints about how people generalize about Trump’s supporters, how it’s so unfair that they’re not all racist, but they all get lumped together anyway. I know you’re not all racist, not by a long shot. But now is the time to stand up and show you mean it. Speak now or forever hold your peace.
*In a lame follow-up on Sunday, a White House spokesperson did put out a follow up statement which said the following : “The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, K.K.K. neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together,”
So after enormous backlash, they were finally willing to include white supremacists, etc. among the violent, hateful groups they condemn. But they are still simply lumping them in with a collection of other groups which are, in their view apparently, equally abhorrent. And even then, the statement came from an anonymous White House source. Still nothing from the President calling out these groups.
**This is not to say that it’s not extremely important for establishment Republicans to say it. It is. They must isolate Trump on this issue and make it very clear that he has no backing when he chooses this route. Thankfully a number of Republicans did strongly condemn white supremacists, neo-Nazis, etc, by name. Far fewer condemned Trump for refusing to do the same, but there were a small handful.