How Did We Get to Charlottesville?

08/18/2017 11:35 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2017

[written in collaboration with Christian Sarkar]

“If you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism you see through whatever channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now because you’re doing church wrong,” - Robert Wright Lee, IV, minister and descendant of General Robert E. Lee

The tragic death of Heather Heyer at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia reveals a truth about the Trump administration, its political supporters, and Trump himself. Together, they are willing to support domestic terrorism in their unquenchable thirst for power.

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the "alt-right," chanted "Heil Trump!" while marching through the streets. Dozens of demonstrators were hurt, and we saw the horrific act of domestic terrorism – civilians plowed down by a car, similar to terrorist attacks in London, Nice, Berlin, and now Barcelona – resulting in the death of Heyer, who was demonstrating peacefully against the white supremacists.

The protestors consisted of three stand-out groups: White nationalists, Ku-Klux Klansmen, and avowed neo-Nazis. Many of the protestors came from other parts of the country. The White nationalists wanted to keep out or down African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims. The Nazis did their “sig-heils” and their Jew baiting. The Ku-Klux clan members wore their white hoods.

After a stunning period of twitter-silence, Trump knew that he needed to respond to the terrible news, including the deaths and injuries caused. But he also needed to avoid mentioning these groups because they make up a significant number of his followers.

His initial whitewash statement that the protestors and counter-protestors were to equally blame was greeted by an avalanche of criticism. He failed to mention the disreputable affiliations of many of the protestors. It took another day or two before Trump finally came out condemning “the White Supremacists, Ku-Klux clan, and the Nazis” as the instigators of this very un-peaceful protest. And a few days later, he once again doubled down on his message of false equivalence.

Trump’s initial tweet really represented his deep indifference to moral values. His instincts favor “fighting” rather than condemning. “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.” "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," Trump said at a campaign rally.

So, we ask – how do we find our democracy in such a fragile position? How is it possible for Trump to have the audacity to tweet that both the protestors and the counter-protestors were equally responsible for the outbreak of violence?

During the campaign, Trump explicitly exhorted his followers to use violence against protestors, and even against the press. The alt-right – a fascist group with Nazi white-supremacist ideologies – was supported by Trump donor Robert Mercer and strategic adviser Stephen Bannon. The white supremacists, it can be argued, up until now, occupied the White House.

Even David Duke, the ex-KKK grand wizard says what he saw in Charlottesville "fulfills the promises of Donald Trump.”

President Trump’s inability to demonstrate leadership has been condemned as a moral failure by the Guardian:

It was not true that the violence in Charlottesville came from “many sides”, as Mr Trump evasively said, before repeating his evasion. It is the head of state’s duty to stand up, explicitly and unequivocally, against racists and those who promote racial violence. Mr Trump was found wanting.

The Economist has delivered a stunning critique as well.

This moral failing is not limited to President Trump. In addition to the white supremacists, he was put in power by at least four groups who supported him: Evangelicals, the Republican Party, the Corporate Class, and the desperate Workers who lost their jobs in coal, steel, and other industries.

The Evangelicals

The Evangelicals strongly backed Trump and refused to factor in the huge catalog of Trump’s major flaws that should have disqualified him for the presidency:

  • Trump is a megalomaniac who thinks mostly about himself and who describes himself as knowing more than anyone else, including military affairs. This is quite an assertion given that he was never in the army.
  • Trump is a person who immediately attacks anyone who crosses him or whom he doesn’t like. He started the “birther” campaign against Obama. He pillories Hillary at every chance. There is a complete list of 359 people, places and things that Donald Trump has insulted on twitter. They include Rosie O’Donnell, John McCain, and countless others. He is especially apt to point out the poor features of many females he doesn’t like.
  • Trump attacks the democratic institutions that we value, namely the news media, the judiciary system, the Congress, etc. He attacks international organizations such as NATO, the U.N., the Open Society Institute and many others.
  • Trump attacks many of our allies and their leaders, including Mexico, Canada, Japan, Australia, and China. In the meantime, he maintains a strange liking of Russia.
  • Trump demands absolute loyalty. He surrounds himself only with yea-sayers. He never talks to Democrats or liberals. He gathers his cabinet and has each cabinet member say how great they think he is in front of the camera.
  • Trump is actually a terrible business person and manager. He refused to pay his bills to many contractors and suppliers who subsequently sued him. He shows none of the leadership behaviors that business leaders say are important, such as servant-leadership, listening to others, empathy, and compassion.
  • Trump is a deeply ignorant man. He has a poor understanding of history, geography, hard science, and the behavioral sciences. He reads very little and gets his information from watching TV, particularly Fox and other partisan information sources. All this means is that he lives in a bubble and never wants to learn what others think.

The question becomes whether any voter truly wants the President of the United States to have these seven characteristics. What does this say about our evangelical leaders? So far, they have stayed firmly in Trump’s corner, which is a moral disgrace in itself.

It should be noted that other clergy, men and women (not part of Trump’s council), did “stare down” the supremacists in Charlottesville, with no protection from the police.

The Republican Party

The Republican Party could have chosen any of 17 Republican candidates who ran for the Presidency in 2016. From the beginning, many people thought that Trump was running as a joke. He could increase his popularity and his business fortune by running. After all, he wasn’t even a Republican. He was originally a Democrat and he gave lots of money to support Democratic candidates. Even in turning into a Republican, he didn’t necessarily hew to conservative values and norms. He wouldn’t show his tax return. He insulting the other Republican contenders, particularly Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

When it became clear that Trump was developing a program “Let’s make American great again,” that would appeal to many downtrodden Americans who neither party had helped, the Republicans began to see Trump as having a higher probability of winning the elections than the other Republican candidate. Trump’s moral failings didn’t bother the party, partly because some of the other leading Republican candidates also had serious moral failings. The party’s only concern was whether they could control Trump if he was elected. This made them nervous but they wanted victory at any cost.

Now that Trump is in the White House, the Republican party is bearing the fruit. Trump does not get along with some of the Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell, and that he is not manifesting conservative principles, and that he is actually damaging the image of the Republican Party.

Previously, a few GOP state lawmakers demonstrate just how tone-deaf they are by proposing legislation that would indemnify drivers who smash into crowds. Journalist Angie Schmitt make this chilling point: All these men bear a portion of the blame for what happened to Heather Heyer — their bills fed an undercurrent of rage against people exercising their right to assemble. It was only a matter of time before an extremist like Fields acted out the violent fantasy these bills tacitly encourage — to kill and injure people with a car.

With Charlottesville, there are signs that some in the GOP are questioning the competence of their President. But there are others, Sen Inhofe – the climate change denialist – for example, who continue in their support.

The Business and Corporate Class

Business owners and the financial class welcomed Trump as someone who would keep government small, get rid of a great number of onerous regulations, and lower the tax on the wealthy, all of which meant there would be higher profit opportunities for business. They would put up with many of his ludicrous ideas, such as building a Wall with Mexico and making Mexico pay for it. They would put up with his idea of insisting that Japan and other allies start paying for the defense that we are giving them, ignoring that it is in our long run interest to keep selling them our arms. Businesses would accept the idea that maybe NAFTA has to be revised and that we should stop Obama’s effort to develop the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asian nations.

Our companies are now getting a new set of concerns about Trump. In trying to “de-globalize” and only pursue America’s interest, he is making it harder to get business abroad, especially when he talks about raising tariffs to other non-compliant foreign companies.

The clash in Charlottesville is opening their eyes further to question whether Trump is good for business. Bill George points out the moral leadership displayed by Merck’s Ken Frazier, who led the CEO revolt against Trump.

Consider this reaction from Intel CEO Brian Krzanich who resigned from Trump’s Manufacturing Council.

Earlier today, I tendered my resignation from the American Manufacturing Council. I resigned to call attention to the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues, including the serious need to address the decline of American manufacturing. Politics and political agendas have sidelined the important mission of rebuilding America’s manufacturing base.

I have already made clear my abhorrence at the recent hate-spawned violence in Charlottesville, and earlier today I called on all leaders to condemn the white supremacists and their ilk who marched and committed violence. I resigned because I want to make progress, while many in Washington seem more concerned with attacking anyone who disagrees with them. We should honor – not attack – those who have stood up for equality and other cherished American values. I hope this will change, and I remain willing to serve when it does.

I am not a politician. I am an engineer who has spent most of his career working in factories that manufacture the world’s most advanced devices. Yet, it is clear even to me that nearly every issue is now politicized to the point where significant progress is impossible. Promoting American manufacturing should not be a political issue.

My request—my plea—to everyone involved in our political system is this: set scoring political points aside and focus on what is best for the nation as a whole. The current environment must change, or else our nation will become a shadow of what it once was and what it still can and should be.

US CEOs have finally taken a stance by disbanding their councils. Mark Blessington explains they are protecting not just corporate values, but Brand USA itself. The late Peter Drucker would approve. Business cannot and must not be indifferent.

The Workers

We need to have sympathy for workers who used to be paid $25-40 an hour working in the steel, coal and other industries which had contracted substantially either because our factories moved abroad or climate control legislation and other energy sources made coal no longer a favorite fuel. The whole idea of a dynamic economy is that it must adjust quickly to changing opportunities, and some workers will lose out because their pay is excessive. This is the price that a dynamic economy must pay. But the same economy should take steps to compensate these workers in some way. The workers should must receive unemployment benefits then and Social Security when they retire. They need subsidized educational opportunities to be retrained. They need financial help to move to other locations where jobs are plentiful or needing specific types of workers.

But these are admittedly weak solutions. When a populist candidate like Donald Trump comes along and charms them and says that he will “bring manufacturing (jobs) back, “impose tariffs on goods made in China and Mexico,” “leave Social Security as is,” and “build a wall,” workers can easily fall for this. Trump promises to bring back the past when these workers earned much more money. He would “Make America great again.”

Most of Trump’s statements are easy lies. Any other candidate from either party would be too careful to dare to make these promises. What will it take for the Democrats and Republicans to truly listen to the voters? Overturning Citizen’s United and ending the unjust practice of gerrymandering would go a long way.

Conclusion: Enough is Enough

I published Democracy in Decline in 2016, just before the full elections and the Trump presidency. I am now more worried than ever that our Democracy is accelerating toward its decline of democratic values and international respect. We have elected a “populist” President. The chief worry of our founding fathers was that democracy might lead to the Presidential election of a person of poor character and exploitative leanings. The Electoral College system was set up precisely to prevent someone becoming the President who won only the popular vote. The Electoral College members would see through this and not vote him or her into office. Ironically, the system didn’t work and Trump won not the popular vote, but the Electoral College vote. He immediately went into charging vote fraud that accounted for Hillary’s three million extra votes.

Now we face a dilemma. We need to get Trump to resign or to be impeached. But then we inherit Vice President Michael Pence who collaborated with Trump and never showed any independence and moral concern. Mike Pence lives in his own bubble of fundamentalist religious thinking with its biblical injunctions, pro-life proclivities, and other anti-liberal policies.

Businesses activism is going to have to increase, in the absence of moral leadership in government. Our military leaders, thank the heavens, are doing their part.

A final sobering thought: only 18% of Republicans blame the white-nationalist groups for the bulk of the Charlottesville violence, according to a poll with 2,181 respondents via Axios. Some 64% think both sides share responsibility equally. Perhaps more alarmingly, only 46% of all Americans put the blame on the white nationalists, while four in 10 condemn both sides equally.

"If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land." - Franklin Roosevelt, November 4, 1938

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