As the horror of Charlottesville played out on national television on Aug. 12, I was thinking of a photo from Ferguson, Mo., taken almost three years earlier to the day. It showed a black man walking toward riot-gear clad law enforcement on Aug. 11, 2014, during the protests in reaction to the police-involved killing of Michael Brown. The picture dramatized so much that was wrong — then and now.
Thanks to hindsight and a scathing Justice Department report, we know the reaction to the shooting of Brown was more about the reality on the ground in that St. Louis suburb and the exasperation of African Americans everywhere at the unequal treatment in the eyes of the law. The militarized police response to the previously “unheard,” the rubber bullets and riot gear, tear gas and tanks, shocked the nation. The few knuckleheads who used the peaceful protests to loot and cause trouble gave those for whom chants of “Black Lives Matter” sounded like a threat the excuse they needed to brand the movement as “inherently racist” and anti-police. They laid the blame for the shredded race relations at the feet of then-President Barack Obama. Worse, what happened in Ferguson gave too many the cover they needed to ignore the demands of equal dignity and fair treatment that were and remain the movement’s foundation.
What happened in Charlottesville was altogether different. White supremacists went to the home of the University of Virginia to protest the removal of a Confederate statue and with the express purpose of sowing fear with their “Unite the Right” rally. Last Friday night, racism streaked across the campus unashamed and without a hood as they chanted “Sieg heil,” “White lives matter” and “blood and soil.” By Saturday, the skirmishes between avowed racists and counter-protesters turned more violent. That afternoon, borrowing a page from the Islamic State terrorist playbook, James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer. He then allegedly sped backward over more after his motorized weapon crashed into the vehicle in front of him. One of his former teachers told The Post, “He had white supremacist views. He really believed in that stuff.”
Funny, no tanks or rubber bullets there. No defiant statements from law enforcement about preserving law and order. No leadership from the president.
The bigoted mayhem that gripped Charlottesville is a moment made for a new president. A moment when he gets to prove to the electorate that it was right to entrust national leadership with him. A moment to unite and start the healing. Instead, President Trump unleashed his “on many sides” nonsense. While I appreciate the president’s words on Saturday, delivered with all the enthusiasm of a student forced to read aloud during detention, I don’t believe him. I don’t believe he feels the emotion the words are supposed to convey. The White House issued a statement Sunday that the president’s grudging comments that didn’t mention white supremacy, racism or specific hate groups “of course … includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups.”
What makes Trump’s failing worse is that I didn’t expect anything better from him.
Before he became a presidential candidate in 2016, the Manhattan builder spent the previous five years championing the racist birther lie that Obama was not born in the United States and, therefore, in the White House illegally. Then, on June 16, 2015, Trump set the tone for his presidential campaign when he said, “They’re rapists” when talking about immigrants from Mexico during the announcement of his candidacy. And it has been all downhill from there with a candidacy that allowed right-wing hate to feel safe quarter and a presidency that lets it grow by pretending it’s not there.
Trump, the man who is oh so quick to thunder against radical Islamic terrorism, always gets cramps in his Twitter thumbs, loses his voice or suffers amnesia when white nationalists are involved. Like that time David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, endorsed him in February 2016, “I know nothing about David Duke,” Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I know nothing about white supremacists.”
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back,” Duke said after he slithered his way into Charlottesville on Saturday. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. 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.”
Trump doesn’t have the moral clarity needed to immediately denounce Duke and his “take our country back” white supremacy. Trump doesn’t have the moral authority needed to make such commanding words stick. He ceded that moral high ground ages ago. And Trump has neither the interest nor the care to turn his words into deeds that heal the nation, especially with white nationalists like Stephen K. Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka just steps away from the Oval Office. Especially when he is pursuing immigration, justice and voting rights policies that further the goals of white nationalists.
We took great strides to learn the lessons and move forward from the awful response in Ferguson. Charlottesville shows what can happen when the president doesn’t have the capacity to do the bare minimum required of responsible leadership.
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