It would be nice to be able to ignore the cadre of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and garden-variety bigots who marched and spewed hatred in Charlottesville Friday night and into Saturday. For starters, it would deny them the attention — oxygen for any political movement — they so obviously seek. But there are a few reasons we don’t have that luxury.
The first is that these rallies of racism seem increasingly intended to provoke physical clashes with counter-protesters, like the one that resulted in three deaths and 35 injuries Saturday. It is surely no accident that the rally took place, and was so violently countered, in a college town surrounded by a relatively rural area. Such a place has just the toxic mix of relatively young people to spark such a confrontation, both those inclined toward the sense of self-proclaimed victimhood that seems a hallmark of the resurgent white supremacists, and those who believe they have the right to take the law into their own hands by way of physically confronting the bigots. It happened earlier this year at Auburn University.
Lest anyone confuse the above for some kind of moral equivalence, let me set you right. As a rule of thumb, if neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or any of their ilk are involved in a situation, they are the ones who deserve the first and largest share of the blame. The specifics of this incident reinforce that. While the marchers did obtain the city’s permission for their rally, everything about their actions — the torches (OK, tiki torches), firearms, verbal insults at passers-by, swastikas, etc. — points to a different kind of assembly than the “peaceable” ones protected by the First Amendment. There are many things wrong with the so-called “Antifas,” not least their unwillingness to let law enforcement alone deal with any problems the bigots cause. But to focus mostly on them is to blame the bull for charging when it sees red. The first step to stopping the bull is to stop waving the damn flag at it.
In fact, an equivalence is exactly what the white supremacists want. Remember what I said about victimhood? Blaming the Antifas, or giving them an equal share of the blame, allows the bigots to claim they were attacked for simply voicing their opinions — when, in reality, they set out to provoke such an attack. We must be clear-eyed about that if we are to neutralize all parties to this violence.
Which brings me to the other reason, and that is President Trump. Again, for clarity’s sake, let me say from the outset that I do not believe Trump himself is a white supremacist or a bigot. The problem is that these miscreants have attached themselves to him and he has failed — and arguably, refused — to separate himself from them.
Saturday’s mealy-mouthed statement from him illustrates the point. Trump condemned the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” repeating those last three words — “on many sides” — for emphasis.
Now, as I said, the Antifas are a pretty nasty lot. But the president must be clearer about who was centrally to blame here — just as he has argued for countering radical Islamic terrorism by name. And his failure to do so is a failure to protect, among others, himself.
The context here is crucial. Just hours earlier on Saturday, and not for the first time, former KKK leader and failed politician David Duke invoked Trump by name to explain why he and the others were marching in Charlottesville (Duke’s comments appear beginning at the 0:25 mark):
The key part: “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back, and that’s what they’ve got to do.”
You might argue it’s unfair and unfortunate that the likes of Duke would try to glom onto Trump (I suspect others will say Trump deserves it; litigating that argument is not my goal today). But if you are the president, and someone of Duke’s prominence is saying such things about you at a rally that spun so out of control that you had to address it at an event to honor veterans, you cannot give him the satisfaction of a statement that’s anything less than crystal clear in its condemnation of Duke and his comments. Period. To do otherwise is to allow creeps like him to set the narrative about your presidency — that actions like theirs are part of fulfilling your promises. Again, for Trump’s own good, he cannot allow that to happen.
But allow it, he has. Consider what the repugnant Richard Spencer had to say about Trump’s initial statement on Charlottesville delivered via Twitter:
And here’s what a publication for the neo-Nazis had to say after Trump’s verbal statement:
That’s why saying “nothing specific about” the white supremacists was a mistake by Trump. The white supremacists themselves are telling him what it would take to put some distance between himself and them.
We know Trump is perfectly capable of biting words about those with whom he disagrees; he reminds us of that capability on a weekly, if not daily, basis. So there is no excuse for his not being precise now about Duke and the other marchers. If he simply hadn’t heard of Duke’s comments by Saturday afternoon, it beggars belief that no senior members of his administration have heard them by now. Better to be late in addressing Duke’s comments than not to do so at all.
ALSO: Read this personal reflection from my colleague, Monica Richardson: This is not my Charlottesville. Hate doesn’t win in my hometown.