Maya Angelou infamously said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Donald Trump showed us who he was a long time ago when he took out full-page ads against the Central Park Five in the ’80s, and continued to show us when he jumped on the birther bandwagon, questioning President Obama’s birthplace and legitimacy. Candidate Trump reminded the nation and the world exactly who he was during the election cycle. He made the most open, vicious and despicable comments about communities of color, religious minorities, immigrants, women and more as he ran for the presidency. He failed to quickly denounce the support he received from white supremacist groups and from people like the grand wizard of the KKK, David Duke himself. Why would we seriously expect anything different now in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville? Perhaps our larger focus should be the fact that he showed everyone who he was – and still won.
Following the horrific death of Heather Heyer, along with at least 19 others injured on Saturday, many politicians from both sides of the aisle immediately came out with forceful condemnations (minus the president of course). Marco Rubio tweeted: “Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists.” Paul Ryan tweeted: “Our hearts are with today’s victims. White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated.” And Ted Cruz referred to the tragedy as a “grotesque act of domestic terrorism”.
While their strong condemnations and calls for President Trump to do the same were welcomed, they and other politicians don’t get a pass for their previous silence. Where were these elected officials when the number of hate crimes jumped both during the campaign cycle and following the 2016 election? Where have they been during the seven months or so of this Presidency when religious and minority groups have continued to see a surge in attacks and open bigotry? Where was all their outrage when Trump became their Party’s nominee despite having called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country”, referring to Mexicans as “rapists” and “drug dealers” and so much more? Oh, that’s right, they were willing to ignore it just to get a win and get their agenda through.
Now to the voters. Many claimed they also ignored some of Trump’s reprehensible comments and actions because they believed he was going to create jobs, improve the economy and in turn improve their lives. What does that say about us as a society and us as individuals? So long as the racism or vitriol isn’t directed at me, it’s all good? Or so long as it’s directed at ‘those people’ then it’s fine? Everyone who remained silent ever since Trump descended down that golden escalator in June of 2015 is guilty of helping to create the climate we are in.
In pursuit of his Presidential ambitions, Trump removed the harsh scab that covers America’s ugliest wound: our brutal foundation and the continuing ramifications of white supremacy. What began with the slaughter of Native Americans and the brutality of slavery, later turned into segregation, Jim Crow laws, then red lining, unfair housing, unequal schools, the prison industrial complex, racial profiling, voter suppression and so much more. Many of these issues remain with us today; and on the flip side, we are an increasingly diverse nation where people of color are estimated to outnumber the white population as the majority in just a few decades. What you have is a virtual powder keg bustling at the seems. Some leaders work diligently to quell this powder keg and seek to keep us progressing forward, while others, well, not so much.
During the ‘unite the right’ rally on Saturday, David Duke said: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” That’s about as clear as it can get. Trump may not be directly responsible for what a domestic terrorist does, or even what Duke and others say, but there is a direct link between his rhetoric/measures and white supremacists feeling emboldened. Furthermore, Trump’s policies like the border wall, increased ICE agents and harsh immigration tactics, the Muslim ban, the transgender ban in the military, as well as a Justice Department run by AG Sessions that has placed a pause on consent decrees with police departments, that has signaled it may take on affirmative action in college admissions and that has reversed its position on a voter ID case in Texas are substantive legislative actions that do more harm to marginalized communities than his pathetic failure to name hate groups.
Where do Republican leaders who are now suddenly outraged stand on these issues and others? That is the true question. It’s rather easy to condemn Nazis (well, apparently not if you’re Trump), but it’s a lot harder to delve into the vicious history and laws of our nation that helped foster many of our current dilemmas. And it takes a special brand of evil to relentlessly advocate for legislation that continues to disenfranchise the already disenfranchised.
These politicians must also explain why they are silent in the midst of reports that the Trump Administration wants to remove white supremacist and other domestic groups from the Countering Violent Extremism program so that it focuses solely on ‘Islamic extremism’. The tragedy in Charlottesville and the data – including the fact that you’re seven times more likely as an American to be killed by a right-wing extremist than you are by an extremist who claims to be Muslim – would clearly indicate otherwise.
There’s no more sugarcoating where we are. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, just in the month following the election last year, there were over 1,000 bias-related incidents around the country, and there are currently over 900 hate groups in the U.S. Many studies have been conducted showing a direct correlation between the vile campaign rhetoric we witnessed and a rise in hate crimes. And this isn’t confined just to the south, or in suburban areas.
According to Brian Levin of California State University San Bernardino, hate crimes in nine cities rose more than 20 percent last year – with New York leading the way. There’s no denying the fact that Trump unleashed something that was dormant for a long time, or at least confined to the outskirts of civilized society. Now it is right in our faces – both literally and metaphorically with continued policies and proposed legislation that do harm to many communities. The question for all of us, politicians and citizens alike, is do we have the courage to finally take these challenges on?
President Trump showed everyone who he was a long time ago - now it’s up to the rest of us to decide who we are.