In case you’ve not been paying attention lately (mind, not paying attention is one of the better strategies to happily surviving one’s tenure on this mortal coil), there was a bit of trouble in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend (specifically Saturday, August 12).
A rag-tag band of what is collectively called the ‘alt-right’, or sometimes ‘white nationalists or supremacists’ (comprised of a myriad of subgroups, including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and Skinheads and others) gathered to protest the City of Charlottesville’s s planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The group’s protest was legally-permitted. Charlottesville had originally granted the permit for the protest/rally, but had later withdrawn it, claiming that the park where the protest was planned was too small to accommodate so many people. Which prompted a federal lawsuit by the group, assisted in the matter by the American Civil Liberties Union. The white supremacists won the suit, the judge in the case questioning the City’s claim as to the capacity of the venue—other events with far more people than anticipated in this instance had been held in the park in the past.
So, the protest went on as planned. But it didn’t. The alt-right protesters, dressed in all sorts of quasi-military garb, some carrying torches, seemingly all openly chanting and braying their disgusting creed for anyone to see and hear, were met by club-wielding, masked and helmeted protesters from what have been referred to as alt-left—people who belong to antifa (an anti-fascist organization) and BLM (Black Lives Matter), and others simply there to protest the protest. The counter protesters did not have a permit.
In the ensuing melee, a troubled young man who was driving among the mayhem, his car surrounded by the counter protesters, came completely unhinged and barreled his car into the crowd, killing one and injuring many others. From what we know about the young man (mainly from his Facebook page and his mother and a former teacher), he was an alt-right sympathizer, probably of the neo-Nazi persuasion who had a history of mental illness, dating back at least as far as his preteen years when he abused his mother.
When President Trump initially remarked on the matter that there was bad on both sides without initially condemning the views of the alt-right, the press corps wolves were quick to strike, basically equating a refusal to condemn with sympathy for neo-Nazi/KKK/white supremacist views. So, Trump then specifically condemned the alt-right as repugnant, but without retracting his earlier statement. The wolves wanted more. It seems they wanted Trump to say that the counter protesters were freedom fighters, or something to that effect. Instead Trump reiterated his observation that there was plenty of bad on both sides. The wolves have been ripping and tearing at his flesh ever since.
Here’s what I wish he’d have said—in a speech, not via Twitter:
First let me say to the American people that I find the idea of white supremacy, or black supremacy, or Jewish supremacy, or Latino supremacy, or Catholic supremacy or Muslim supremacy—in short, any idea of any sort of supremacy based on contrived and fallacious racial and ethnic and cultural distinctions repugnant, both personally, and to the ideals that made and make this country great. I believe that we are all Americans; that no one group of Americans is better than any other; that the only way this great experiment in liberal democracy can work is if we collectively acknowledge that our differences are less important than the American values that bind us.
That said, what I believe doesn’t matter. What matters is the laws and rules we have promulgated to govern us, many of which embody my beliefs, or arise from same place as mine, but necessarily not all. Most importantly among these laws is the founding contract between our government and its citizens, the US Constitution. It says that you don’t have to believe like me; that you can believe whatever you wish to believe. So long as your belief does nothing to impair my liberties, you are free to believe what you will, even going so far as to demonstrate in the public squares and spaces, pronouncing your beliefs to others, fearing nothing more than the disapprobation, and perhaps ridicule, of your fellow citizens. Your beliefs, no matter cockeyed or silly I or others think them to be, are not cause for me, and especially not for the government of the people I represent, to brutally and violently attempt their suppression. Or to stand by when others attempt to do that which the Constitution prohibits. We can ridicule. We can offer better alternative beliefs. But we can’t try to beat the beliefs out of others who don’t believe like us. That’s what the First Amendment to the set of agreements to which we are bound as Americans says.
You don’t even have to believe in the First Amendment. You can believe that others should be forcibly silenced. But you can’t act on those beliefs except through ordinary political discourse. The awesome power of this nation’s government stands ready to quell either the violent expression of belief, or its violent suppression.
It was a sad day for America in Charlottesville Saturday. Nobody there and involved with what happened has clean hands. Not the protesters marching against removing Robert E Lee’s statue. Not the counter protesters looking for a fight. Nor, especially, the City of Charlottesville, who stood by and watched it all happen.
Nothing justifies what that troubled young man did in ploughing his car through a crowd of defenseless pedestrians. Just as nothing justified the killing of five Dallas and two Baton Rouge police officers in the midst of protests that took place last year. And in neither case should the actions of murderous criminals be used to smear the character of whole organizations and the individuals within them. There is a difference between marching in protest, even when a protest march turns ugly, and willfully murdering people.
Regarding the putative reason for the protest march and counter protests, I don’t believe it is wise to try to erase history, even when that history carries painful reminders of the country’s past sins, or perhaps, especially when that history carries painful reminders of the country’s past sins. We can’t apply today’s ethical standards when pondering past events. We can understand what happened only by understanding the context of the times in which it took place. Instead of removing existing statues and monuments, I think we need more statues and monuments, ones that will help put context to what happened, so that we might better understand why these statues and monuments were erected in the first place.
But I believe it is for local communities to decide what to do. The Constitution supports me on this. It is silent regarding the display of secular statues and monuments by state and local governments, and where it is silent on an issue, it explicitly provides that the power remains with state and local governments. That’s where I think it belongs.
In closing, allow me to point out that the American people are expert at turning tragedy into triumph. Our Constitution stands as a testament to the progress we’ve made. The tragedy of religious and political persecution was turned into the triumph of the First Amendment protecting both. The tragedy of slavery was turned into the triumph of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, abolishing slavery and granting former slaves the right to vote. The tragedy of barring the franchise to women was turned into the triumph of the 19th Amendment.
Upon my election as President I swore to protect and defend the Constitution of these United States from all enemies foreign and domestic. And that’s exactly what I intend to do, including not least, its First Amendment. Thank-you for your time. God Bless you and God Bless America.
Then walk away. Leave the reporters to report on what you just said. No off-the-cuff answers to reporter’s questions. No Twittering. Nothing. Just leave and say no more. Until the next such tragedy. At which time, you reiterate what you just said. There were no winners in Charlottesville. Don’t let yourself be among its losers. That’s about all you can hope for in this radically-polarized era.