Correction: An earlier version of this op-ed misspelled the name of Trump aide Katharine Gorka. This version has been updated.
Wajahat Ali is a political commentator, Emmy-nominated producer, playwright and attorney.
“Children, if you’re a Nazi or a white nationalist, your president will stand up for you. If you’re Muslim? Immigrant? Black? Female? Sorry, you’re on your own. Perhaps work at Trump Towers or compete in Miss Universe in order to make it. Good luck!”
I never considered saying this to my two babies, but then again I never thought a president would make moral equivalences and excuses for white supremacist terrorism. After Tuesday’s news conference, we know that President Trump believes thereare “both sides” to the tragic violence in Charlottesville that left one woman dead and 19 injured. There are apparently “many sides” to the conflict, but only one man, James Alex Fields, a Nazi sympathizer, who was charged with deliberately plowing his car into a crowd killing Heather Heyer, an anti-racism advocate. In reviewing his response to the Charlottesville tragedy, it seems Trump has different standards for different Americans: one for his base, the alt-right, and another for Muslims and people of color.
According to Trump, there were “very fine people” in the weekend rally assembled by members of the alt-right. Some of these “very fine people” included white men and women in Old Navy and Gap clothes carrying Tiki torches bought at Walmart, many armed to the teeth, shouting anti-Semitic and racist slogans and lifting their arms in Nazi salutes. Even though they chanted, “The Jews will not replace us!”, I’m sure they’ll give a pass to the president’s Jewish grandchildren. These misunderstood men are nuanced, sophisticated and generous. They deserve careful restraint in denouncing them.
But there’s no such hesitations from Trump when it comes to Muslims. This is the president, after all, who publicly said, “I think Islam hates us.” He preemptively, and incorrectly, blamed a Manila shooting on Muslim terrorism and invented a Muslim terror attack in Sweden that never happened. He falls over himself rushing to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” unlike President Barack Obama, whom he chided for being weak. After the San Bernardino attack, he didn’t praise “very fine” Muslims who have lived in America for over 400 years, but instead made a call for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims from entering the country. After last year’s Orlando shooting, he said that the federal government should begin surveilling mosques. As president-elect he flew to Ohio in December to visit the victims of a Muslim man, allegedly inspired by the Islamic State, who rammed his car into a crowd, injuring 11. Nearly a week after Charlottesville, Trump has yet to visit the family of Heather Heyer. In fact, he was unable to even name her in his Tuesday press conference.
Also, Trump is unable to name this weekend’s murder an act of domestic terrorism. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions, criticized by civil rights groups throughout his career, was able to call it an act of terrorism. Instead, Trump is still waiting to see, because, as he mentioned in the news conference, “When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts.” Which explains his promotion of birtherism, or tweeting that Obama surveilled Trump Tower, or making up a video of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attacks, or pushing the myth that 3 million to 5 million immigrants voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.
Maybe I can help Trump see the “facts” and “many sides” to these double standards by framing it in a story he understands. The armed protesters in Charlottesville are angry, frustrated men. They feel dislocated from mainstream society, unheard and unwanted. They found a community online that listens to their grievances. They unite over an ideology of supremacy that promises them glory, honor and dignity. They believe their tribe needs to gain dominance over inferior groups as the only path toward creating a pure society. This describes the pathway to radicalization for the Islamic State and for many white supremacists. They were the “very fine people” in Charlottesville.
Don’t believe me? Talk to Christian Picciolini, a former leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads and member of the neo-Nazi movement, who left in 1996. That’s how he described the recruiting of white nationalists when I interviewed him right before Tuesday’s news conference. His group, Life After Hate, which helps de-radicalize white supremacists, received a $400,000 grant from the Obama administration under its “Countering Violent Extremism” program. Out of all the recipients, it was the only group focused exclusively on fighting white supremacy. Recently, Katharine Gorka, a Trump aide with a rich history of anti-Muslim statements and wife of Sebastian Gorka, another White House aide accused of being a member of an anti-Semitic Hungarian group, helped persuade the Department of Homeland Security to pull Life After Hate’s funding.
Perhaps if a Muslim had been driving the car in Charlottesville, the president would be able to muster 140 characters or have the moral clarity to see only one side, and call it for what it is: an act of hate and domestic terrorism that betrays the values and principles that brave Americans died fighting for. Instead, we have a president who is able to see the good in all of his citizens, except, of course, those who aren’t part of his base.
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