Elections have real-life consequences. That is why every four years, we make decisions about who will lead our country by gleaning everything we can from the candidates’ words, their records and policy positions, and yes, sadly, even their tweets.
Our votes affect every manner of our lives, our children’s lives and perhaps even their own children. Our health care, how much we pay in taxes, how we confront the terrorist threat, how we respond to climate change, who will represent us on the Supreme Court, our standing on the global stage. These are but a few.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: Trump condemns KKK, neo-Nazis as ‘thugs.’
But presidential elections have never had the stomach-turning, heart-breaking consequences like those we witnessed Saturday as torch-bearing white supremacists felt emboldened enough to march on a college town in Virginia waving Confederate flags, chanting Nazi slogans and screaming racial epithets. When it was over, one person had been killed and 19 others injured when a car plowed into counterprotesters at high speed. Two Virginia state troopers who had been patrolling the madness from the air were killed when their helicopter fell from the sky.
In times like these America turns to its leaders to capture the gravity of the events and give voice to their moral outrage and stand up to hate. Presented with that opportunity, President Trump said Saturday: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides.”
On many sides? For a man famous for his specificity in lashing out at those who cross him and incur his mighty wrath – Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier is Trump’s latest Twitter target – the president’s remarks were vague when there was no reason for ambiguity. Only one side carried torches and spewed Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda and racial epithets on Saturday. Only one side believed they are superior based on the color of their skin.
The president had a chance to condemn evil without equivocation, calling out white supremacist thugs for the terrorists they are. This was terrorism. Hate has no ambiguity.
In strong terms for all the world to see, Trump could have dissuaded those groups from thinking he is their ally in the White House. Instead, he created a moral equivalency between two groups — one professing white supremacy, the other denouncing bigotry.
Then, in almost his very next breath, the president famous for an almost childlike need for praise reached new heights of narcissism, lurching into a boast about employment figures. It was disgraceful given the timing.
Returning to the Charlottesville tragedy later, he called for study of “what we’re doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen.”
Elections have real-life consequences.
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If the president wants to genuinely, as he put it, “get the situation straightened out,” he can start by looking in the mirror. If we want to ask who emboldened those racists to come out from behind cloaks and hoods, we can begin by looking at the president’s very long history of fanning racial resentment and intolerance in many forms.
For his is a presidency with a foundation built on perpetuating a “birther” lie intended to discredit an African-American’s rightful place as president. When he launched his campaign, he slurred Mexicans, then sought to humiliate them by telling delirious supporters he would make Mexico pay for a border wall. The president has many targets; he has tried to demonize a Gold Star family of Muslim faith and a Mexican-American judge, among others.
On Monday, after two days of mounting criticism for not condemning white supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis by name, Trump called them out as hate groups. Some said by then it was too late — and that in not swiftly criticizing them on Saturday and distancing himself from their support, the president had given them more space in which to operate. It is lamentable that many of those protesters carried Trump campaign signs.
The white supremacists who took to the streets in Charlottesville were “going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back,” said David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Take note of Duke’s words. They are like the ones you hear in the hate incidents across the country, which are captured on camera and posted on the internet and social media, where they go viral.
In 2016, then-candidate Trump deflected questions about Duke’s support, saying he didn’t know much about the widely known purveyor of hate.
“I just don’t know anything about him,” Trump said then.
Mr. President, meet David Duke. He speaks highly of you.
To many Americans, Duke’s statement confirmed their cynicism and their fear that Trump’s vow to “Make America Great Again” was the dog-whistle code for returning to a time before this nation’s hard-fought civil rights gains. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that the Justice Department will investigate whether universities are discriminating against white applicants, a development that exacerbated such fears.
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Some have said that the events in Charlottesville remind us that racism is alive. The truth is that it always simmers. But we must worry now that, by design or not, our president fans the flames.
Not all of us know what it’s like to feel the burn of racism simply because we are brown or black or Jewish or Muslim. But it is heartening to know that those who are targets are surrounded by allies who understand that racism has no rightful place in America. For that is the American way. Witness the civil rights movement; it unified people of all races, creeds and religions. One nation, one great America for all.
Castillo is the Viewpoints editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org