Chaos and violence turned to tragedy Saturday as hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members — planning to stage what they described as their largest rally in decades to “take America back” — clashed with counterprotesters in the streets and a car plowed into crowds, leaving one person dead and 19 others injured.
Hours later, two state police officers died when their helicopter crashed at the outskirts of town. Officials identified them as Berke M.M. Bates of Quinton, Va., who was the pilot, and H. Jay Cullen of Midlothian, Va., who was a passenger. State police said their Bell 407 helicopter was assisting with the unrest in Charlottesville. Bates died one day before his 41st birthday; Cullen was 48.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who had declared a state of emergency in the morning, said at an evening news conference that he had a message for “all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today: Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth.”
Not only McAuliffe but also many other politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, deplored the white nationalists and the mayhem they created, many of them telling the president he needed to denounce the hate-mongers. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — who went a step further, calling for a Justice Department investigation of domestic terrorism — were among them. (Later Saturday evening, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the FBI and U.S. attorney would be investigating.) President Trump and Vice President Pence did not take their advice. Instead, they hid behind ambiguity and moral equivalence.
As news broke of a terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015, Trump immediately tweeted that he was praying for “the victims and hostages.” Very soon after a shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June 2016, Trump tweeted that he was “right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
But he kept quiet Saturday morning as a protest led by white nationalists, who arrived with torches and chants in Charlottesville, on Friday night, turned violent. The cable networks that he usually watches showed footage of increasingly violent clashes between the white nationalists, some of whom looked like soldiers because they were so heavily armed, and the counterprotesters who showed up to challenge them.
When he belatedly spoke up, all he could muster was a vague tweet (“We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let’s come together as one!”) and then a despicable statement evincing the kind of moral equivalence Republicans used to denounce. (“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” In case you missed that, he repeated, “On many sides.”) In yet another tone-deaf tweet, he declared, “Condolences to the family of the young woman killed today, and best regards to all of those injured, in Charlottesville, Virginia. So sad!” Sad?? His stilted, off-key lines betray his lack of empathy and failure to comprehend the gravity of the moment.
This is not the first time Trump has played footsie with white nationalists. During the campaign, he initially pleaded ignorance of David Duke’s racism in an interview with Jake Tapper. He played to white nationalists’ fears of illegal immigrants, demonized Mexicans, made racist accusations against a federal judge, falsely accused illegal immigrants of causing a crime wave, and refused to apologize for anti-Semitic imagery. Once in office, he hired alt-right darlings including Stephen K. Bannon (who bragged that he had made Breitbart a “platform for the alt-right”) and Sebastian Gorka. As president, he has channeled the white racists’ “blood and soil” concept of nationalism in his speeches and encouraged white, Christian, working-class Americans to think of themselves as victims and to see their religion as under attack — while he championed a Muslim travel ban. Pence on Saturday was no better, sending out a mealy-mouthed tweet: “Karen & I saddened by the loss of lives in Charlottesville. Thoughts & prayers w/ families of officers & young woman. Also w/ injured victims.”
Trump did not tell the white nationalists to go to Charlottesville or to commit violence. But his campaign and presidency have given white nationalists cover, oxygen and the dream of respectability. And now, when the moment calls for some semblance of presidential leadership and denunciation of racists, he cannot bring himself to criticize a group that is unarguably part of his base (not a majority, but among his strongest fans).
This kind of stomach-turning display of moral obtuseness is precisely what opponents of Trump predicted when they warned that he was unfit for the presidency. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Saturday denounced white nationalism as a “scourge,” but he supported Trump even after Trump attacked a federal judge and Gold Star, Muslim parents. What did Ryan think America was getting?
If Republicans are now truly disgusted by the president they supported, they can condemn his embarrassing comments, support the FBI and Justice Department investigation, and urge that Confederate statues throughout the country be taken down. We’ve now erased the fictions that these monuments are about “Southern heritage.” No, they are giant concrete shrines to white nationalism.
“It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, they fought against it,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a memorable speech explaining his city’s decision to remove the statues. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.”
If the president doesn’t grasp this, the rest of the country should. It’s time to get rid of the statues and get rid of the alt-right heroes in the White House. As for Trump, the country cannot get rid of him soon enough.