White supremacists marched in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017.
Donald Trump did not murder Heather Heyer, the thirty-two-year-old paralegal who was killed when a car allegedly driven by neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters
. But he shares some responsibility for her death.
After all, Trump lit the fuse.
Sure, there was already a powder keg. There were racial resentments that boiled to the surface during the Obama presidency, manifesting in the tea partyers and the birthers, both of whom Trump nurtured and “mainstream” Republicans tolerated so long as it suited their political ambitions.
But from the second Trump announced his candidacy, he’s played footsie (or worse) with white supremacists and white nationalists. He’s elevated racists like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller and neo-Nazi sympathizers like Stephen Bannon and Seb Gorka to positions of power. He’s refused to call out bigots who rallied to his banner, even after his election produced a surge of hate crimes. He built a campaign rooted in a fear of the other—Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, African Americans—and in a fear of changing cultural dynamics, premised on nostalgia for white hegemony.
The pathetic losers who marched in Charlottesville this weekend, bearing tiki torches and Nazi flags, were there in his name. And it was because of his ascent that they felt no need to hide themselves behind sheets, that they could announce themselves in full view of a multitude of cameras, that militiamen dared walk around in camo and with semi-automatic rifles. Trump allowed them to believe they have allies in the White House. He made it OK to step out of the shadows, to flaunt hatred for all the world to see.
(Fields’s mother told the Associated Press
that she thought her son was traveling from Ohio to Virginia for an event that “had something to do with Trump.” She wasn’t wrong. Neither was former Klan leader David Duke
, who said the Charlottesville protest was an effort to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump: “We are determined to take our country back, we’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump, and 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 and that's what we gotta do.”)
And when violence forced Trump to say something on Saturday, all the vainglorious chump could muster was some horseshit about blaming “many sides,” as if Nazis and those who don’t like Nazis have some sort of moral equivalence. Trump also insisted that we need to “cherish our history,” an unsubtle nod to the KKK types who descended on Charlottesville to defend a monument to the white supremacist and slave owner Robert E. Lee.
It took nearly twenty-four hours for the White House press shop to try to clean that up—and then only after a Nazi website praised Trump’s “many sides” rhetoric and he was roundly lambasted in the press for his cowardly dog-whistling—publishing an unsigned statement on Sunday saying that “of course” Trump’s condemnation of violence “includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis and all extremist groups.”
To condemn Nazis after deadly Nazi violence is the easiest political lay-up imaginable. Yet Trump refused, just as he demurs when there’s cause to criticize Vladimir Putin. As the lead to a New York Times piece so succinctly puts it: “President Trump is rarely reluctant to express his opinion, but he is often seized by caution when addressing the violence and vitriol of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and alt-right activists, some of whom are his supporters.”
This would be inexplicable if the reason wasn’t so patently obvious: Trump is terrified of aggravating his base, and his base is made up in no small part of white supremacists, would-be fascists, and other deplorables. (Side note: Can we all agree now that Hillary was dead-on in her assessment?)
Several prominent conservatives have been more forthright than Trump. A few even directly criticized his tepidity. Senator Cory Gardner, who is helming the Senate GOP’s 2018 campaign, pleaded with Trump to “call evil by its name.” Senator Marco Rubio—who said during the presidential campaign, “We cannot be a party that nominates somebody who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan,” then went on to unflinchingly support Trump anyway—said it was “very important” for the nation to hear Trump denounce what happened in Charlottesville as a “terror attack.” Senator Ted Cruz demanded a federal investigation, saying, “The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate.”
Closer to home, Senator Thom Tillis tweeted, “The hate, bigotry and violence on display in #Charlottesville is despicable and represents the complete opposite of what America stands for.” He also retweeted Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican senator, who said, “We must ALL condemn domestic terror & stand together against racism, hate and evils that if left unchecked will tear us apart.” (Senator Richard Burr, meanwhile, hasn’t yet issued a statement on his Facebook page, Twitter account, or Senate website.)
Their words are nice (though should you really expect a cookie for saying “Nazis are bad”?). Actions would be better.
So long as they enable Trump, so long as they tolerate his incompetence and malevolence in the hopes of securing tax cuts or another Supreme Court justice, they are complicit in the moral stain that he represents. And so long as the stain Trump represents—the stain he refuses to condemn—goes unanswered, the more this rot will fester, the more this hatred will boil, and the more likely it is that others will share Heyer’s fate.
At minimum, every decent Republican—looking at you, Tillis and Burr—should be demanding that Trump immediately fire Gorka, Miller, and Bannon. Bannon, of course, offered the goose steppers a safe space on Breitbart
. Miller, who palled around with white supremacist Richard Spencer at Duke
, has been behind the administration’s attacks on refugees and immigrants. Gorka, a former Breitbart national security editor, has ties to a right-wing Hungarian group that was allied with the Nazis
. In any normal administration, Republican or Democrat, histories half that repugnant would have prevented them from getting anywhere near the Oval Office. In Trump’s, they’re top advisers.
That the president hired them, and that they’re still on the government payroll, is a testament to Trump’s amorality. That Republicans haven’t forced the issue is a testament to their pusillanimity.
If America is to stop this descent into madness, these gutless wonders are going to have to rediscover their spines. Indeed, Trump isn’t going to change, certainly not of his own volitions. He’s too small-minded and narcissistic for that. So it’s up to Congress, especially Republicans in Congress. Trump should be marginalized as an outlier, a horrible mistake waiting to be corrected, undeserving of our respect and morally unqualified to lead—even if that’s to the detriment of their political fortunes.
Anything less is connivance.
For the rest of us, we need to recognize this president and his white nationalist supporters for what they are: an existential threat to what we imagine to be good about America. This is no time for passivity, no time to mince our words or shy away from calling the president what he is: a racist—or, generously, a racist sympathizer. This is a time to be angry, to be in the streets, to be protesting the quarter the administration has offered the worst elements of our society, to be demanding that monuments to slaveholders and racists be thrown on history’s scrap heap.
In North Carolina, we should turn our attention to the General Assembly, and to the lily-white Republican caucus that has a stranglehold on both chambers. In 2015—after a white supremacist murdered nine people in a black church in South Carolina—Republicans passed a law forbidding local governments from removing monuments to the Confederacy
, under the guise of protecting history. Historical relics belong in museums, not as monuments on government property; a monument to “the boys who wore the gray,” as the inscription reads in Durham, is a tacit endorsement of the worthiness of their cause, which was, at its core, the right to own other human beings as chattel.
There are 140 publicly sanctioned symbols of the Confederacy in North Carolina
, including five monuments in the Triangle: three on state property in Raleigh, one on county property in Durham, and Silent Sam at UNC. They need to come down. Local governments must loudly and unequivocally demand that the legislature allow them to do so, and make Republican lawmakers justify their continued existence on public property. That’s not an argument Republicans want to have, nor is it one they can win.
More important, the legislature has gone out of its way to minimize the power of the black vote to protect its power, first by drawing congressional and legislative districts that were ruled unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, then by passing strict voting restrictions that a federal appeals court said “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
(That law was struck down.) These are reprehensible affronts to civil rights and democracy itself; they should not be forgiven. Nor should the fact that, last year, in response to protests over a police shooting in Charlotte, the state House passed a despicable bill that gives civil immunity to drivers who run over protesters. (The Senate hasn’t yet taken it up.)
In her last Facebook post, Heather Heyer quoted the familiar maxim
, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Let her memory forever remind us to stay vigilant, to be outraged, to never accept this virulent hatred and demagoguery as normal, to never lose sight of what we’re up against, to never stop fighting.