Trump's Failure to Condemn Nazism Gives America A Defining Moment
A 32 year-old woman was killed and more injured when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, in clashes at a white supremacist rally. A man has been arrested and charged with second degree murder.
To say that the scenes are shocking is a gross understatement. The killing of an anti-racist demonstrator was an act of domestic terrorism. Morally and intellectually, there is no difference between this act and any act of Islamic terrorism. Terrorism is not defined by the colour of the perpetrator’s skin. They should be treated with the same disgust.
The spectacle of far-right violence and intimidation on the streets of modern America is a grotesue one. Heather Heyer’s death is the terrible price of America’s divided politics and the far-right’s hatred.
It is at times like this that nations look to their leaders. After the Oklahoma bombing, Bill Clinton’s response began the healing process of what was a collective wound. Equally - though far from perfectly - George W. Bush became a focal point after 9/11. Barack Obama spoke to the nation with tears in his eyes after the Sandy Hook shooting. His sadness provided national leadership during a time of grief.
In these moments presidents speak above partisan needs to the nation. They help define the events themselves and through that the nation.
Yet Trump could not do it.
Many of the demonstrators were carrying Nazi insignia with all the associations of the evils of the Holocaust. Such a vile display gives the presidential reaction a special importance - special but not hard. It should be easy for a president to condemn unambiguously such ignorant malevolence.
All Trump could do was condemn violence “on many sides”.
for Trump it represents a low
There has long been a dark side to American populism. Richard Nixon played with that paranoia in his 1968 convention speech. In 2008, Sarah Palin stoked it as she campaigned on John McCain’s presidential ticket. Although he condemned it - famously taking away a microphone from a supporter who called Obama “a Muslim” - McCain only did so after time.
In 2016, Trump took up that mantle. In his campaign he pushed the boundaries of bigoted language. As president, by failing to condemn far-right violence or even those carrying Nazi banners or wearing swastika arm bands, Trump has shown that he has no boundaries.
Even for Trump it represents a low.
The reason seems apparent and part of a terrible pattern of his political career.
Many of his supporters and White House inner circle have strong links to far-right groups: his chief strategist, Steven Bannon, is the former editor of Brietbart where he peddled white supremicist theories; Sebasitan Gorka was part of a Hungarian neo-fascist group and Stephen Miller, with Bannon an architect of the “Muslim ban”, is a former associate of neo-Nazi Richard B. Spencer.
When he received his endorsement during then campaign, at first Trump denied knowing of KKK leader, David Duke, despite evidence to the contrary,. Even his subsequent disavowal was ambiguous.
The phrase “a president like no other” is used to refer to Trump’s methods of governing. More often, it should be used to describe the extremism of his agenda.
American leaders must show none of Trump’s ambivalence to Nazism
The sight of neo-Nazis on the streets is not new. What is new is that the President of the United States’ first reaction is not outright revulsion.
Whether it is intuitive or conscious, this is a president who understands the power of language. Last week, there was an attack upon a mosque: Trump said nothing. This week he refuses to condem Nazism on American streets. Silence speaks as loudly as words.
The alt-right is an ideology that is emerging. As such it remains unformed. Its influences include elements of mainstream conservativism but also darker influences from the extreme, fascistic right. Where is lies on the ideological scale is too soon to judge. That is not to diminish its threat to modern democratic values. It is to say that its mix of negative freedom and counter-revolutionary grievance politics is a unique phenomenon.
Whatever the differences, those violent thugs were his people. Those neo-Nazis chanting their hatred were his people. Trump banners mixed with those of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. Trump could not condemn the violence specifically because to do so would be to condemn himself. Therefore he straddled the fence. In doing so, he drew an equivalence between the two sides and failed a test of moral leadership.
The moral void could be a defining point in his presidency, or American politics. What was seen on the streets was of Charlottesville was not just racism but Nazism. Alt-rights fellow travelers who ignored his bigotism before cannot with any conscience ignore this. If they do, what does it say about America?
Following the lead of Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe, American leaders must show none of Trump’s ambivalence to Nazism. The President’s failure means their chorus must be louder. Together they fill the moral vacuum that Trump left.
If former president’s reactions to events moulded public consciousness, then the reverse holds true. The danger is that Trump’s response gives license to hatred and bigotism. Without censure, American Nazism will seep into the American mainstream.
As such, it could be that Charlottesville represents the beginning of something more frightening in American populism
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