It was an ugly weekend for America.
The racism that fueled the hateful speech and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was another reminder that our divisions remain deep. The events were met with justified and widespread condemnation of the white supremacists whose actions caused havoc, injury and death.
But it was profoundly disturbing to see in President Donald Trump’s response that he is unable or unwilling to provide the moral leadership needed to help bridge the chasm that is America’s original sin.
The Unite the Right rally Saturday was headed for trouble from the night before it began. The gathering of white nationalists, expected to be one of the largest in recent times, was ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The demonstration was a magnet for white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and factions of neo-Nazis, young white men who marched onto the University of Virginia campus with their repulsive symbols and flags, their warrior helmets and shields accessorized with garden shop lawn torches. They carried Trump campaign signs, and chanted such vile white supremacist slogans as “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us!”
By Saturday, the counterprotesters had arrived, and the streets were bloodied with brawls so numerous that authorities shut down the rally before it started. Then a man drove a car into the counterdemonstrators, killing one person and injuring at least 19 others. It’s especially important that in these fraught times, the first amendment rights to free speech, no matter how disgusting that speech is, and the right to peacefully protest it, be affirmed. But the violence it generates must be condemned.
Trump correctly criticized hatred, bigotry and violence, but added that its egregious display has been seen “on many sides.” And he repeated that, for emphasis. Establishing an equivalence between hatemongers and those protesting them is repugnant. Trump never noted the role of white supremacists in the debacle or condemned their message. A president who aggressively criticizes foes by name and lambastes those who refuse to use the term Islamic terrorism seems blind to domestic terrorism. James Alex Fields Jr., the Ohio man charged with murder for driving his car into the crowd of counterprotesters, had a baby picture of Hitler on his Facebook page.
Trump can neither escape nor forswear the legacy of his campaign. His Make America Great Again slogan served on another level as a vehicle for expressing white grievance in a nation becoming more diverse and more inclusive. Trump’s responsibility in emboldening that view was made clear Saturday by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who said, “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” with Duke defining that vow as one to “take our country back.”
Trump can’t erase this hate, but he must personally denounce the seething rancor fouling America and the specific groups that promote it. Failing to affirm the American ideal that all of us are created equal, and are equal in the eyes of the law, will further strip the moral authority of his presidency.