When the president of the United States continues to suggest, as he did Tuesday, that white supremacists, Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan are no better and no worse than those protesting those hate groups, then we’ve reached a moral crisis in our country.
It boggles the mind that the occupant of the Oval Office in 2017 would so openly engage in false moral equivalencies that give comfort to racists and embolden those who seek to dominate people of darker skin, different religions and cultures. But that’s what Trump did at a contentious press conference in New York earlier this week.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” Trump asked while reviving his initial statements, made amid bloodshed in Virginia, that “both sides” of racial protests there were at fault.
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“You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs, and it was vicious and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch.”
The Nazis and white supremacists had permits to protest in Charlottesville, Va., last week, as Trump reminded reporters. The protesters didn’t.
Yes, because having proper documentation is what’s really important when Nazis are on the scene. Having proper documentation is more significant than standing up to hate mongers chanting “Jews will not replace us,” as they did in Charlottesville.
Herein lies the moral crisis caused by the Trump presidency. In his unscripted moments, like we saw on Tuesday, he plays to a base that responds favorably to racial and ethnic scapegoating, or at least excuses it as “straight talk” in the service of fighting all that is “politically correct.”
He treads lightly and carefully around white supremacists while appealing to animosity his supporters feel toward groups such as Antifa, Black Lives Matter and others.
Not all of Trump’s supporters are white supremacists. Not all Trump supporters would do a Nazi salute or march on a town, as supporters did in Charlottesville, lighting tiki torches and evoking images of Nazi rallies in Nuremberg before World War II.
But that both-sides-are-wrong false equivalency plays well with many Trump supporters, if social media is any judge. It allows some of Trump’s base to keep a safe moral distance from Nazis and the KKK, while tacitly supporting hate groups as they support Trump’s “straight talk.”
From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump toward railing against immigrants, Muslims, transgender people, Mexicans, and other frequent Trump targets.
Why are we surprised by this anymore? This is what Trump has been doing all along. His problem isn’t a lack of communication skills. On the contrary, he means what he says and says what he means. This is who Trump is.
If the man accused of killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville protester, had been Muslim, Trump undoubtedly would have branded him a terrorist as he has branded other terrorists who kill. But since the suspect in Heyer’s killing is Alex Fields Jr, 20, a known Nazi sympathizer, Trump pulled his punches on Tuesday. He wouldn’t unequivocally call him a terrorist.
That’s bad enough. But when he says outright that white supremacists are equally to blame as anti-hate protesters, he raises racists up in the public square. He gives their twisted grievances legitimacy. He invites them to continue doing what they do.
Don’t talk to me about Trump’s scripted repudiation of Nazis two days after their assault on decency had left the country roiling while everyone else spoke out against them but him. On Tuesday, when he was off script, he reverted to his “both sides” nonsense and gave a wink and a nod toward domestic terrorists.
And he left us with a choice. Either we renounce these false moral equivalencies or we don’t. Either we acknowledge why Nazis and the KKK elicit raging opposition or we don’t.
It’s really not complicated.
It’s up to prosecutors to go after anyone who breaks the law, whether they be Nazis or Nazi protesters. In Sacramento, local prosecutors are going after people on both sides who broke the law in a violent protest at the state Capitol last year.
It takes a prosecutor to know when the law is broken and not care about the ideology of the law breaker. But it takes a leader to understand the difference between people promoting oppression and those fighting it. And it takes a demagogue to willfully confuse the two.
The moral crisis at hand begins with Trump, but doesn’t end with him. A demagogue is nothing without support.
It’s one thing for Trump supporters to distance themselves from Nazis. Fine. But if you’re arguing that those who fought Nazis are just as bad as Nazis – that groups like BLM and others on the “alt left” are just as dangerous as Nazis – then you are the problem.
Many Trump supporters had no problem when Trump labeled Mexicans as “rapists” during his campaign. Many Trump supporters had no problem when Trump built his political career by falsely claiming that Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was born abroad. Many Trump supporters cheered when Trump asserted that our borders are open, when they are not. They were OK when he objectified women and mocked the disabled.
If you buy all that and believe the false equivalencies, then you support Trump’s most consistent rallying point that he repeated Tuesday: white supremacy.
Deny it all you want, but that’s what he did, that’s what he built his campaign on, and that’s who he is.
Do you support that?