“On many sides."
From the comfort of his luxury golf resort in northern New Jersey, the president of the United States cast his eyes toward Charlottesville, Va. after a weekend neo-Nazi rally turned violent — a 20-year-old white man from Ohio, apparently affiliated with Vanguard America, a white nationalist group that opposes racial equality, drove a Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter-protesters on Saturday, injuring 19 and killing a 32-year-old local woman who was marching in opposition to the driver’s racist cause — and decided that pro-Nazi or anti-Nazi, pro-racial equality or anti-racial equality, pro-violence or anti-violence, it was all the same to him. President Donald Trump, fearful of playing favorites perhaps, decided not to single out those Nazi sympathizers and called for an end to violence “on many sides.”
Here’s exactly what President Trump said: “We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. On many sides.”
He then repeated those last three words, “on many sides,” for emphasis. And in doing so, he firmly and unequivocally demonstrated that this president did not see anyone in particular being responsible for this awful moment in our nation’s history, didn’t see this as the act of domestic terrorism that it was. He took his measure of the protest, the Nazis on the one side and those who oppose racial prejudice on the other, and saw them as morally equivalent (or at least close enough that the difference was judged not worth mentioning).
The usual Trump apologists will call that nit-picking. Why, he condemned violence and asked for calm, didn’t he? Or they’ll point to the statement the White House belatedly issued on Sunday that chastised “white supremacists” for inciting violence. Or perhaps they'll quote National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster who told the TV audience of “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning that “of course, it was terrorism.” But that effort to correct the record came a day late and a dollar short. Most every other public figure worth asking — including many Republicans and, most pointedly, Virginia’s governor — had already blasted the white supremacists one day earlier. This was not a trick question, not a partisan wedge or a media-driven “gotcha.” It was a moment to defend the core moral values of the United States of America, and the president failed spectacularly.
It’s not fair to expect Donald Trump to be Abraham Lincoln or even especially eloquent. But it is reasonable to expect him to exercise the kind of judgment that Anthony Scaramucci, Mr. Trump’s ill-fated former communications director, offered on ABC’s “This Week” where he told host George Stephanopoulos that the president’s statement had been insufficient and put the blame for that squarely on Steve Bannon, the White House strategist who was closely associated with the white nationalist movement as chairman of Breitbart News. But while there’s undoubtedly some influence of what Mr. Scaramucci called “Bannon-bart” in Mr. Trump’s initial pulling of punches, the buck stops with the president.
This is hardly the first time Mr. Trump has shown a disinclination to criticize racism. His xenophobic speeches on immigration, his failure to condemn anti-Muslim hate speech, his claim that a Mexican-American judge could never treat him fairly, his unwillingness to even speak to the NAACP convention in Baltimore (defying a tradition for sitting presidents since Ronald Reagan was in office), his especially repugnant and long-standing campaign to “prove” Barack Obama was born in Kenya and his frequent cozying up to white nationalists during his campaign for president have reinforced the view that strip away the corporate jet and the pricey real estate, and the native of Queens is, at heart, Archie Bunker with a shiny red tie.
This is the president that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke adores (and white nationalists continued to express their affection for over the weekend). And it’s no surprise that Mr. Trump’s election has proven a shot in the arm for the KKK and similar organizations as well as caused an uptick in hate crimes, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. There was a time in this nation’s history when condemning virulent racist neo-Nazis was something of a no-brainer, and for most Americans, it probably still is. That the man currently occupying the Oval Office (or playing the back nine of whatever Trump property he’s promoting on any given day) doesn’t have the moral clarity to do so is shameful beyond words.
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