My mother, who celebrated her 88th birthday last weekend, was shocked and dismayed watching events unfold in Charlottesville, Va.
There in her living room on her 55-inch TV screen were the nightmares of her youth: White supremacists, Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites marching in the streets in the name of white superiority and dominance. Instead of burning crosses, they carried torches. Some were armed to the teeth.
Mom had thought that nightmare had been put to rest, buried with the likes of Jim Crow laws that drove her own mother to leave the South, walking the distance from South Carolina to Florida and eventually to New York.
“He’s brought back the Klan,” Mom said, her eyes tearing up. “Trump has brought them back.”
Yes, he has.
The insult cut deep in our family — African-American with a father wounded in World War II fighting Hitler’s Nazis in Europe. That would have been horrifying enough. Those images of white men wielding swastikas and Confederate battle flags, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil,” quoting the KKK. That would have been evil enough.
Even so, we believed redemption was on the way, coming as it does in healing, unifying words of a president, who in calamitous times is called on to guide a nation through periods that test our democratic ideals and moral foundation.
But there would be no lasting balm from this White House — no deliverance in the aftermath of those two days of clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, home to the esteemed University of Virginia founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson.
Initially, President Trump shocked the nation by equating those who showed up to protest racism and anti-Semitism with the white supremacists who spewed hatred and mayhem during weekend “Unite the Right” rallies presumably to object to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who fought to preserve the enslavement of black people.
Violence broke out in Charlottesville. A Nazi sympathizer, Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio, was charged with the murder of Heather Heyer, as the alleged driver of a car that mowed her down and injured 19 others.
Two Virginia state troopers died in the crash of their helicopter, which was used to video the rally, before being diverted to the governor’s motorcade.
Instead of calling the evil by name, Trump said: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides ― on many sides.”
Bipartisan condemnation was swift, including from Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who took issue with Trump’s statement, but like many other Republicans, failed to directly criticize the president.
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Cruz urged the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute what he called a “grotesque act of domestic terrorism.”
Two days later, Trump begrudgingly responded with a more unifying statement: “Racism is evil,” he said.
“Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, white supremacists and other hate groups.”
That was short-lived. Just a day later, Trump let his true feelings be known, reiterating the same morally false narrative he put out at first, with words that sickened and chilled the world but thrilled white supremacists.
Trump spoke of “very fine people” on both sides, who were in Charlottesville simply to protest the removal of a statue. Those fine people might have marched with neo-Nazis, but they were there for a legitimate reason, Trump said.
“You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest,” Trump said.
My question to the president is this: What “fine people” would march under a Nazi flag alongside folks chanting racial slurs and carrying torches?
Answer: Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who very much appreciated the president’s heartfelt defense of those good people, some of them carrying Trump/Pence signs.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth,” Duke said on Twitter this week.
Even before Trump’s ascension to the presidency, white supremacist groups were merging with other movements under a glossy rebranding called the “alt-right.” They have become emboldened since Trump’s election.
And why not? For perhaps the first time since Woodrow Wilson they have a leader in the White House friendly to their ugly cause — a president seemingly unburdened by the shame and lessons of what history tells us of Nazi Germany and apartheid America.
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Most Americans perfecting their imperfect democracy for decades forced such hate groups to the fringes, where they mostly lurked in the shadows with their manifestos, Confederate flags, swastikas and grievances. Sure, they reared their ugly heads many times. But until recently, they were swiftly and roundly repudiated and sent back to the political fringe – if not to prison.
Now, they are tweeting thank-you notes to a U.S. president, planning rallies in cities across the U.S. — including Austin next month — and publicly flexing their muscle and twisted ideology. No longer in the shadows, they occupy a prominent place at Trump’s table — in the people’s White House.
Yes, mom. Trump has brought back the Klan.