“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” — Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986
President Donald Trump usually is quick to share his immediate response to any event – usually on his preferred platform, Twitter. And he usually is reluctant to back down, once he’s made a statement. So it was significant from the start not only that his initial response to the racially motivated violence that took place at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville was slow to come but also that it was revised several times. And none of the versions have been satisfactory.
In his eagerness to remain neutral and build a bridge of equivalence between hate spewing white nationalists and counter-protestors united against the cancer of racism metastasizing in our country, President Trump—whether through callousness or political calculus—has emboldened white supremacists and signaled tacit, if not clear support, to hate mongers.
Let’s be clear. There were not “many sides” in Charlottesville.
There were alt-right adherents, nationalists, neo-Nazis, and whatever new-school euphemisms are out there to describe devotees of old-school racist ideology. And you can put them all on one side—or if you prefer—a basket of deplorables. There were also people there who put their lives on the line, including 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who lost her life while fighting for civil rights, human dignity and the promise of a better America for all its citizens.
Trump’s refusal to denounce the side that advocates terror and violence and came to Charlottesville armed to the teeth to provoke hostilities is a colossal failure of leadership. It is a dangerous, precedent setting green light to hate groups and an open door to the return and re-legitimization of white supremacy.
Though the rising tide of disappointment over Trump’s muted response rightfully continues to swell, there are those encouraged his words. And as you might have guessed, they are white supremacists. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, released a statement praising Trump’s response as “good,” adding, “He didn’t attack us. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke made an appearance at the rally before the violence erupted and explained the event’s significance by saying it “represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We’re gonna 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 gonna take our country back, and that’s what we gotta do.”
Rule of thumb: when hate groups, and KKK grand wizards, former or otherwise, support your words and actions, recognize that you are doing something entirely wrong. And you must know now, if you didn’t know then, that you are absolutely not on the side of right and need to make your way there sooner rather than later.
Horrifying expressions of white supremacy and Nazi sympathies are not novel to our nation or the 21st century. What is shocking, however, is that these kinds of demonstrations and displays of naked hatred can happen on American soil without clear condemnation from the highest levels of government. Trump has not lost his power to communicate clearly and quickly. When Merck CEO Ken Frazier resigned from Trump’s business council after the president failed to unequivocally denounce white supremacists, it took Trump less than an hour to hop on Twitter and clearly denounce the pharmaceutical company’s African-American CEO. Compare that to the near 48 hours it took for Trump to release any statement that condemned white supremacy after Charlottesville.
During Trump’s inauguration speech, he promised to be a president for all Americans, yet almost six months into his presidency, that promise has not been realized for vast swaths of people. The presidency is not a parochial endeavor. True leadership cannot be realized when the next election and pleasing your slice of American supporters animate your decisions and policies. True leadership would not demonize Americans who put their lives on the line for equal rights and racial justice for all, and it would not cast these people as the equivalents of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. There should be no room for this brand of vicious hate in our society. This requires a leader who unequivocally stands against the surging tide of hate, not one who steps aside and allows the detritus to wash ashore.