When President Trump spoke Tuesday about the weekend violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, it was a reminder that false equivalence is not new.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis,” Trump said at a news conference about national infrastructure. “I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”
“There was a group on this side — you can call them the left, you’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group,” he added. “I think there’s blame on both sides.”
Kevin M. Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University, said Eisenhower and other politicians blamed “extremists” on both sides of the segregation struggle — those two sides being the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan; in other words, he said, comparing those calling for immediate integration with those vowing to resist it at all costs.
“I think it shows that this sort of false equivalence that Trump’s been engaging in with Charlottesville is something we’ve seen before — and we’ve seen it before in almost this exact context,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview. “It’s not identical in that those people in the ’50s when they were talking about extremists on both sides, they were talking about NAACP activists asking that the South to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling of Brown v. Board of Education on the one hand and they equated that with Klan extremists and terrorists on the other hand. Whereas today, what Trump tried to do was say, ‘Look, you’ve got the Klan but you’ve also got a few violent people in the anti-fascist movement and that’s the totality of what the other side represents.’”
Kruse tweeted out old newspaper clippings with headlines declaring, “La. Governor Raps Both ‘Extremists’” and “Integration Extremists on Both Sides Urged by School Head to Keep Quiet.”
It was no doubt a different time then.
State and local laws that enforced racial segregation were still in effect in many parts of the country, leading to widespread protests for equal rights. Many people in the South still supported segregation, and states were grappling with how to integrate public schools that had been segregated for a long time.
Civil rights advocates leading that charge, including Martin Luther King Jr., and the NAACP, were branded “outside agitators” at the same time that “people in the KKK or in the segregated South engaged in extremist behaviors that cost the lives of people who were simply trying to assert their constitutional and legal rights,” said Theodore M. Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Shaw added in an email that segregationists at the time were not “compelled to argue moral equivalency with those arguing for civil rights. They were openly and unapologetically racist, and they felt no need to defensively argue morality on their part.
“It is only now, when racism is widely considered to be immoral, that racists argue moral equivalency in opposition to civil rights advocates,” he said.
Shaw called the civil rights era “an uphill struggle” for the country but said that Eisenhower was “pushed to move forward and be on the right side of history.”
“Donald Trump and what he said yesterday is regressive — it’s looking backward, it’s taking us back,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview.
“This is extraordinary in ways that I think it’s difficult for most Americans, as shocked as people of good will are, to really comprehend,” he said. “This is someone who occupies the White House, who has no moral bottom when it comes to racism, and who has in many ways encouraged hatred and bigotry in his quest for power.”
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that even though there is a history of leaders making false equivalences, Eisenhower’s cannot be compared to Trump’s.
“Eisenhower was not making an equivalency that indicated whatsoever any disinclination on his part to condemn neo-Nazis or to compare neo-Nazis with Americans who were protesting against Nazis,” he said.
“Trump’s speech,” he added, “indicates the dangers of not confronting honestly an important and disgraceful component of the American past: Slavery itself and the attempt to create a separate nation that Mississippi’s declaration of secession identified as ‘thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.’”