Democracy Dies in Darkness

Opinions

Trump babbles in the face of tragedy

By Michael Gerson

August 12, 2017 at 10:17 PM

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President Trump said "we have to heal the wounds of our country" referring to violence at a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. (The Washington Post)

One of the difficult but primary duties of the modern presidency is to speak for the nation in times of tragedy. A space shuttle explodes. An elementary school is attacked. The twin towers come down in a heap of ash and twisted steel. It falls to the president to express something of the nation’s soul — grief for the lost, sympathy for the suffering, moral clarity in the midst of confusion, confidence in the unknowable purposes of God.

Not every president does this equally well. But none have been incapable. Until Donald Trump.

Trump’s reaction to events in Charlottesville was alternately trite (“come together as one”), infantile (“very, very sad”) and meaningless (“we want to study it”). “There are so many great things happening in our country,” he said, on a day when racial violence took a life.

At one level, this is the natural result of defining authenticity as spontaneity. Trump and his people did not believe the moment worthy of rhetorical craft, worthy of serious thought. The president is confident that his lazy musings are equal to history. They are not. They are babble in the face of tragedy. They are an embarrassment and disservice to the country.

The president’s remarks also represent a failure of historical imagination. The flash point in Charlottesville was the history of the Civil War. Cities around the country are struggling with the carved-stone legacy of past battles and leaders. The oppression and trauma that led to Appomattox did not end there. Ghosts still deploy on these battlefields. And the casualties continue.

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(Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

But Trump could offer no context for this latest conflict. No inspiring ideals from the author of the Declaration of Independence, who called Charlottesville home. No healing words from the president who was killed by a white supremacist. By his flat, foolish utterance, Trump proved once again that he has no place in the company of these leaders.

Ultimately this was not merely the failure of rhetoric or context, but of moral judgment. The president could not bring himself initially to directly acknowledge the victims or distinguish between the instigators and the dead. He could not focus on the provocations of the side marching under a Nazi flag. Is this because he did not want to repudiate some of his strongest supporters? This would indicate that Trump views loyalty to himself as mitigation for nearly any crime or prejudice. Or is the president truly convinced of the moral equivalence of the sides in Charlottesville? This is to diagnose an ethical sickness for which there is no cure.

There is no denying that Trump has used dehumanization — refugees are “animals,” Mexican migrants are “rapists,” Muslims are threats — as a political tool. And there is no denying that hateful political rhetoric can give permission for prejudice. “It acts as a psychological lubricant,” says David Livingstone Smith, “dissolving our inhibitions and inflaming destructive passions. As such, it empowers us to perform acts that would, under normal circumstances, be unthinkable.”

If great words can heal and inspire, base words can corrupt. Trump has been delivering the poison of prejudice in small but increasing doses. In Charlottesville, the effect became fully evident. And the president had no intention of decisively repudiating his work.

What do we do with a president who is incapable or unwilling to perform his basic duties? What do we do when he is incapable of outrage at outrageous things? What do we do with a president who provides barely veiled cover for the darkest instincts of the human heart? These questions lead to the dead end of political realism — a hopeless recognition of limited options. But the questions intensify.

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The Post’s View: What a presidential president would have said about Charlottesville

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A white nationalist and a counterprotester face off. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
A member of The Militia tries to separate white nationalists and counterprotesters. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Counterprotesters shout during the Unite the Right rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
A group calling itself The Militia arrives to keep the peace outside the rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
White nationalists rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Ben, a 21-year-old Ku Klux Klan member from Harrison, Ark., attends the rally at Emancipation Park. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Counterprotesters from the Unitarian Universalists congregation link arms during the Unite the Right rally. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
White nationalist groups rally at Emancipation Park. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
White nationalists gather at Emancipation Park for the Unite the Right rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Cornel West hugs a counterprotesters outside Emancipation Park during the rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
A rally participant blares a horn at counterprotesters. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
Black Lives Matter counterprotestors shout during the rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Clashes begin at the Unite the Right rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
White nationalists stand behind shields during the rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Counterprotesters and White nationalists clash. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Counterprotesters and white nationalists clash at the Unite the Right rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
White nationalists clash with counterprotesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A counterprotester uses a lighted spray can against a white nationalist at the entrance to Emancipation Park. (Steve Helber/AP)
Protesters are forced out of Emancipation Park by riot police. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
A woman is injured during the clashes. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
White nationalist groups and counterprotesters during the Unite the Right rally. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Pepper spray is used on protesters. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Demonstrators skirmish in Charlottesville. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
A demonstrator throws a newspaper box. (Steve Helber/AP)
Black Lives Matter protesters stand in a fog of tear gas during the clashes. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Demonstrators and counterprotesters clash. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
A woman is sprayed with water to wash away pepper spray. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
A man pleads with riot police to "stop defending the Nazis" during the rally. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
A vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress)
People are treated after the collision. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
The scene after a car plowed into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue workers tranport a victim on a stretcher. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Rescue personnel help injured people after a car ran into protesters. (Steve Helber/AP)
Kessler looks at his watch while waiting for a crowd of protesters to quiet before beginning a news conference Sunday in front of City Hall. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Protesters use trombones in an attempt to drown out Kesslers news conference. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Kessler holds a news conference outside City Hall. (Andrew Shurtleff/Daily Progress/AP)
Protesters shout anti-Nazi chants after chasing Kessler from the news conference. Kessler, who helped organize the Unite the Right rally one day earlier, blamed Charlottesville government officials and law enforcement for failing to protect the First Amendment rights of the rally's participants, a collection of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and alt-right supporters. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A police escort rushes away Kessler after the news conference was broken up. (Tasos Katopodis/EPA)
Kessler is rushed away after his news conference. (Tasos Katopodis/EPA)
Counterprotesters shout after Kessler fled. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Several hundred people on the campus of the University of Virgina chant White lives matter!, You will not replace us! and Jews will not replace us! (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
White nationalists march along the front of a campus building. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
The torchlit march makes its way through the University of Virginia campus. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Beginning a little after 9:30 p.m., the march lasted 15 to 20 minutes before ending in skirmishing when the marchers were met by a small group of counterprotesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the universitys founder. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
White nationalists carry torches while marching. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
The march came on the eve of the Unite the Right rally, a gathering of groups from around the country whose members have said they are being persecuted for being white and that white history in America is being erased. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
University of Virginia campus police keep watch. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
The Saturday rally is being held at noon at Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, home to a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that the city of Charlottesville voted to remove earlier this year. The statue remains in the park pending a judges ruling expected later this month. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Men in their 20s and 30s constituted the majority of the participants. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
An officer helps a white nationalist after tear gas was deployed, apparently by a counterprotester. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
A counterprotester reacts to tear gas. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Marchers gather around the Thomas Jefferson statue. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: Tensions rise as white nationalists hold a rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post.

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