On Tuesday, in the span of less than 30 minutes, in a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, President Trump managed to destroy whatever goodwill he had recouped in his statement Monday denouncing neo-Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists in general. With a set of incoherent, dismissive and defensive answers to media questions, the president shocked the collective consciousness of the public, including several members of his own party, as he played right into the talking points of the likes of David Duke. That President Trump went down this path should not surprise anyone who paid attention to his behavior throughout the presidential campaign or his still-early presidency, as he has shown time and time again a disturbing willingness to serve as the Enabler-in-Chief.
It is difficult to envision a scenario less amenable to “whataboutism” than what transpired last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. The tragedy that cost three people their lives – including two Virginia State Troopers – and injured countless others arguably arose due to a single event: the march through the University of Virginia campus on the evening of August 11, 2017. That march consisted almost exclusively of white nationalists carrying Tiki torches and chanting despicable phrases that I will not repeat but that are commonly associated with neo-Nazis and other similarly-affiliated groups. The large-scale counter-protests that emerged the following day were in response to the horrifying imagery that had emerged from that rally the night before. It borders on axiomatic that, absent the August 11 rally, the horrific events that transpired on August 12 would never have taken place.
Despite this fact, and notwithstanding clear and unambiguous denunciations of the white nationalist rallies by politicians across the ideological spectrum, President Trump appeared willing on Tuesday to downplay and minimize the actions by members of the “alt-right” that preceded the counter-protests. He repeatedly demanded to know why the “alt-left” was not being held accountable for its response and sought to whitewash the actions of the “alt-right” marchers by saying some were fine or decent people. It appears that, in the president’s mind, the counter-protestors were just as despicable as the neo-Nazis.
This is not the first time in this nation’s history that similar “both sides are at fault” arguments have been made. The arguments were raised most prominently and on numerous occasions in the 1950s and 1960s in the context of the civil rights struggle against segregation and the legal pushback against the KKK.
What is disturbing is that the argument is now being raised again, decades later, and by none other than the sitting President of the United States. Ironically enough, it is doubtful that President Trump himself fits the criteria of a racist or an anti-Semite. I do not say that as a compliment, however, and the president should not take it as one. I do not believe he fits that criteria because I do not believe the president truly maintains a set of core principles that guide his view on policy matters in any general sense of the word. That was, in fact, the premise of his campaign for the presidency; unlike other politicians, he was not held hostage to ideological views but rather was the quintessential “dealmaker” who could traverse the political stage without limitation.
That lack of a principled core has unfortunately betrayed a deeper flaw. The president simply lacks any true sense of empathy for those who do not praise him, and he is willing to gloss over the flaws of those who do so in a manner that reeks of naivety and narcissism. That flaw was on full display on Tuesday at the press conference. The “alt-left” will always remain critical of President Trump, and he has viewed that as justification to routinely paint them in as negative of a light as possible. Conversely, given the degree of public support the president receives from elements of the “alt-right”, he finds it feasible to try and draw distinctions between portions of the movement in order to avoid losing that support.
This situation should not be countenanced. Like many Jewish-Americans, I descend from Jews who fled pogroms in Europe to seek a better and freer life in this country. Like many Americans of all religious stripes, I also have familial ties to members of The Greatest Generation who fought (and, in some cases, gave their lives) to fight against Nazism and fascism in World War II. To this day, my grandfather’s framed WWII military discharge paperwork hangs on the wall in my office.
My grandfather and all the others did not make those sacrifices so that we could find ourselves making excuses for bigotry years later. It would behoove the president to properly honor their memory by avoiding a recurrence of his Tuesday debacle.