Watching Donald Trump’s train crash of a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, one unwelcome thought preoccupied me: What if he actually pours gasoline on himself and takes out a match on live TV?
Metaphorically, at least, he came as close as he possibly could—closer than any president would have. Or should have. Or could have. Closer than Lyndon Johnson at his most loathsome or Richard Nixon, who at least refrained from uttering his offensive fulminations against “the Jews” and homosexuals in public.
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It is all so surreal—the most apt and yet overused word of the Trump presidency. Can this all really be happening? Is it all a dream? Of course, the most important question, speaking as a Republican for many years, was this: Where is everybody?
In the hours that passed since the president’s remarks—in which he seemed to alternately take to task and defend the motives of “both sides” of last weekend’s march in Charlottesville— numerous outlets cited the ensuing bipartisan outrage. The suggestion is that Republicans, too, have taken the president to task.
No, they haven’t. Not most of them. The most prominent GOP officeholders in this country – many of whom I personally know to be good people—have made oblique criticisms of the president on social media or, more often than not, said nothing. That’s not true of everyone – Marco Rubio and Cory Gardner are standouts, for example—but it is depressingly true in general.
And as I’ve talked to many friends in the party, including influential, high-ranking ones, I realize that some of them don’t truly get why what the president has been saying demands condemnation. The president clearly doesn’t get it, either. General Kelly, the White House chief of staff, obviously does. During Trump’s remarks, he looked like his favorite dog was just hit by the presidential limousine in front of Trump Tower as the president backed up, and ran over it again. Ivanka and Jared get it, too—they let it be known—except they were, sadly, on vacation this week. But the reaction has not been as widespread within the GOP as it should be. As it must be.
For several days, I’ve tried to wrap my head around those defending the president on this. Or remaining silent, which is its own form of defense. Yes, the media has been biased. Yes, they have gone after Trump with a determination and fury that Barack Obama never faced. Yes, other presidents have been slow to respond to various events. Yes, they have far too freely labeled every Republican from Ronald Reagan to both Bushes to Mitt Romney a racist at one point or another. Yes, there are people with debatable concerns about erasing parts of American history. But who cares?
The media didn’t force the president to say—or rather not say—what he did on Saturday, when the people of Charlottesville needed words of unity and healing instead of an indictment of “many sides” that seemed to give racists the very moral equivalence they so long have sought. And the media didn’t force the president to (yet again) fault “both sides” on Tuesday afternoon, or suggest that those hanging around with armed Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” were just peaceful, lawful demonstrators speaking their minds. (They had a permit!) Once a leader can, with a straight face, offer any support at all for those marching to take away the rights of minorities, and get away with it, can there be any norms of behavior left to sweep away?
Here’s the main argument I’ve heard from Trump defenders: that what he said on Tuesday was true. That there were acts of violence committed by “both sides” in Charlottesville. That there were people uncomfortable with the removal of Confederate statutes in their town who didn’t necessarily share the extreme and hateful views of neo-Nazis and Klansmen. Here’s what these defenders don’t get: That’s not at all the point.
Were there people attending a Klan rally in Charlottesville who love African Americans and gays and Jews and Catholics and believe they deserve equal treatment under the law? Were there people who listened to marchers uttering horrific anti-Semitic slurs, didn’t agree with them, but stayed anyway? I guess it’s possible. But frankly I don’t care. No one should. They were with the wrong group. They should have known better. Evil comes in many forms—overtly from those who hate, but also by those who stand beside them and do nothing.
Tellingly, President Trump called out “troublemakers” who were part of the counterdemonstrations in Charlottesville and were supposedly looking for a fight. “Troublemakers” is an interesting term. And a loaded one. It harkens back to all those malcontents in the 1960s who didn’t leave things well enough alone and traveled to the Deep South to protest segregated diners or buses. White racists loved to call Dr. King a troublemaker. The idea was that he was spoiling for a fight and the South was just defending its “values” and its “heritage.”
Is there a time and place for calling out so-called “alt left” groups who foment violence? Sure, I suppose. But let me suggest it is not right after people have been killed in an American city as a direct result of a march initiated by neo-Nazis and other racists.
It’s funny that Trump decided to pick last weekend’s events, of all times he could have chosen, to restrain himself, uttering the dubious, if not preposterous assertion, that “before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.” One wonders: What facts were needed to say immediately, as any other president would, that members of the Klan and neo-Nazis are hateful and vile people whose views should be roundly rejected? Why, as others have pointed out, did the president so quickly denounce the head of Merck for quitting some advisory council and yet took so long to assemble “the facts” before denouncing, of all things, the Klan? Why do all the denouncements of reprehensible people like David Duke seem so begrudging, so slow, so reluctant? Is it pure stubbornness or, as he once claimed, a failing earpiece, or something far darker?
Equally funny, in a sick way, is how many backers of Trump are suddenly seeing so many shades of gray, for want of a better term, when it comes to white nationalist marches in America. In World War II, there were undoubtedly Germans who didn’t share the Nazi ideology and were killed by American GIs. Just as there undoubtedly were American soldiers who were “bad apples” lusting for the kill. But we don’t think “both sides” were at fault for the Second World War. I don’t recall many Bush administration supporters worrying about “both sides” in the 2003 Iraq War, either—those poor innocent, pure of heart members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, for example, whose lives were taken by American military forces during our invasion of their country. When police officers have been involved in violent altercations, I must have missed all the Republican leaders attacking “both sides” for the loss of life. If memory serves, Republicans have instead been powerful, even strident, defenders of the police. Rare are those questioning the motives of the cops or wanting to dive deep into, and defend, the motivations of those who attacked then. When O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of his ex-wife and her friend, where were all the Republicans who thought maybe Nicole Brown Simpson had it coming? Maybe Ron Goldman threatened O.J. with violence? Maybe “both sides” were in error there, too.
Of course, we all know that there aren’t two sides to every story, as you put it, Mr. President. Sometimes, there is only one side. And your comments, I say with great sadness, put you on the wrong side. Of history. Of basic human decency. Of reality. How do you know when you’ve gone so far afield? Well, as a general rule of thumb, whenever your comments are being praised for “fairness” by people like Richard Spencer and David Duke.
Of course, the president should not get away with this. As a Republican, I like tax cuts and smaller government as much as the next guy—but at what cost? To put up with a man who is actually making racial divisions deeper or, worse, seems to be cultivating those divisions? To support a person who seems to want to give every benefit of the doubt—“I like to know the facts”—to those who hate? To have as our leader a man who is praised by Nazi magazines? (Who knew they even had magazines? That’s information I didn’t need to possess.)
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,” Edmund Burke famously said, “is for good men to do nothing.” Now is the time to stand up and say clearly and publicly that these comments were wrong. Now is the time to put the country ahead of the party. And for politicians in Washington, D.C. to prove they still have the ability to see the difference.