THIS PAST WEEKEND IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA BOTH SAW THE PRESIDENCY AND THE NATION DIMINISHED BY EVENTS.
The perpetrators of violence in that city have been variously called “right-wing extremists,” members of the “alt-right,” or “neo-Nazis.” Whatever name you might choose, these groups are anti-American. The irony, of course, is that one of their slogans is, “Take America Back,” which echoes candidate Trump’s earlier campaign promise. But back to what? The bigotry that inheres to these groups offers up the obvious answer: back to a mythical America where segregation and all its nastiness ruled, particularly in the old South, but which still rules in the hearts and minds of many Americans, no matter their geography.
The events in Charlottesville presented President Trump with a moment to step forward as leader of all the people, to name the agents of extremism, and to condemn their actions. Make no mistake about it, the rally was organized by these extremists for the sole purpose of sowing violence in the wake of the city’s decision to remove symbols of an earlier violence directed at black Americans, fractionalized under Article One of the U.S. Constitution and sold into slavery. In the words of David Duke, former president of the KKK, the rally “fulfills the promises of Donald Trump.”
Trump’s equivocation in his subsequent statement to the press was obvious: “We condemn in strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” His “on many sides” gave the clear impression that those who protested the violence of the extremists were equally guilty. Reporters then shouted, “Mr. President, do you want the support of these white nationalists?” Trump didn’t answer. Of course he wants their support; he captured virtually all their votes in the last election.
On December 1, 1862, one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln addressed Congress with these words: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.” This past week saw a retreat to a darker America, one that the world will not applaud.
Update: Finally, on Monday, two days late, Trump issued this statement: “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Bill Britton is a freelance writer and formerly an editor for John Hopkins University Press, ABI Research, and Elsevier Science, and is a frequent contributor to Vero Communiqué.