The Agony and the Alt Right

In times of strife, Americans look to their Presidents for moral grounding. When the nation’s eyes turned to President Trump this week, they found a man adrift. Charlottesville was a moral test, and one that President Donald Trump made far harder for all of us. Most of us were appalled by the white nationalists who marched there and reject the bigotry they represent. But, in our deeply divisive political moment, the lines between our political loyalty and our moral obligations have become blurred. President Trump could have drawn those lines clearly. Instead he chose to blur them further.

It is not clear that President Donald Trump is especially racist. But, this week could not have been much worse if he were. Mr. Trump seems to give quarter to white nationalists and wannabe neo-Nazis mostly because they stroke his vanity with flattering memes and political support, rather than agreement with their core beliefs.

Charlottesville presented President Trump with an opportunity for moral leadership. Instead, he chose to reward his flatters, even as their ideology tears at the moral fiber of the country.

In a bid to tamp down the furor loosed by his his comments Saturday that pinned the blame on “many sides,” President Trump condemned racism on Monday in a begrudgingly made rebuke that rang with all the authenticity of a hostage held at gunpoint. Still, he could have left it there. It would have all blown over.

But, then there was the matter of the President’s press conference on Tuesday in which he saw fault on many sides and alerted us to the very fine people among the wannabe Nazi’s marching through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting “blood and soil.”

In this, there was very little to distinguish the President’s argument from that of the genuinely despicable white nationalists. President Trump’s insistence of blame on both sides echoed the arguments of white nationalists who deflect from the fundamental moral depravity of their cause by pointing to the violence of counter protestors. When Trump spoke, they cheered.

“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” Duke said in a tweet.

It is fair to argue that a hostile media may have been unwilling to give President Trump credit no matter what he said. Still, if there was a question about whether President Trump’s response was adequate, it is answered in the approval of David Duke and other white nationalists. If they were pleased, he didn’t condemn them strongly enough.

This was never a question of who was more violent. White nationalism raise a fundamental moral question about who we want to be as a people. Are we a nation that belongs to white people or to all its people? Violence committed by either side is to be condemned. But the morality of their respective cause is not in any way equal.

The new white nationalists of the alt-right, arrived in Charlottesville in their hundreds, toting bats and shields ready for a fight. President Trump watched as we all did as they marched through UVA’s campus Friday night carrying torches, greeting each others with firmly outstretched arms angled upwards in an imitation of the traditional Nazi salute. They chanted “jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” an homage to a Nazi party slogan, “Blut und Boden.” Where we cringed, he saw “very fine people” among them.

In Charlottesville, the white nationalists co-opted a fight that was not theirs. They sought to protect a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee not for the heritage it represented, but the shameful pain of racial oppression that stains it. It is these same simplistic notions that drives those on the left campaigning to tear it down.

There are good reasons to oppose tearing down statues and renaming buildings. It is an attempt to revise our story to a more pleasant, but less true narrative. This zeal to forget, misses the point of studying history — to remember our triumphs, our mistakes and our shame, and to learn from them. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, “When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing.” Preservation is not about glorifying the racial oppression that stains our past, but maintaining visible reminders of the story that made us who we are as a people.

In making this cause their cause, the white nationalists of Charlottesville pollute legitimate debate over preservation with noxious overtones of bigotry. They are not welcome. Their support is not wanted.

President Trump may indeed not be one of them. But, he’s invited white nationalist rabble out of the shadows of their mom’s basement and given them the reason to believe that they are on the right side of history. That is frightening. The fact that he’s doing it for no good reason makes it no less so.

Two years ago, the country faced another bitterly decisive racial moment as Dylan Roof, who gunned down members of an African-American church in Atlanta made his first court appearance. The members of that church, many of whom lost loved ones and friends at his hand, were given a chance to speak to Roof directly. One by one they walked up and said, “I forgive you.” It was an inspiring moment of moral courage and Christian mercy. It’s the kind of thing that lifts up and inspires. The kind of thing that reminds us of what we aspire for our nation to be. The kind of thing we hope to find in our President.

Charlottesville presented President Trump with an opportunity for moral leadership. He could have lifted us up and brought healing to our divisions. Instead, he wallowed in them. That’s not the media’s fault, nor the left’s, nor even the white nationalists’ — it is his alone.

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