Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media
On Saturday, after one person was killed and many were injured after a white supremacist drove into a crowd of Americans protesting a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Trump said this:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” he said, then added: “On many sides.”
But there are not many sides to Charlottesville. There is the anti-racist activist who was killed, and the white supremacist who killed her. There is the mob chanting the Nazi cry of “blood and soil,” and the citizens demanding equality and respect. There is the confederacy, and there is the United States. There are the torches of neo-Nazis and the torch of the Statue of Liberty. There is Donald Trump and there is patriotism.
There is one right side, and the President is not on it.
As I wrote on the day of his inauguration, Mr. Trump is fundamentally an anti-American president. He has spoken for decades of the joy he takes in America’s destruction: whether bragging that the 9/11 attacks made his buildings look taller, cheerleading the 2007 housing crash and recession or stating in 2014 that, “You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
That is what Make America Great Again has always meant for Donald Trump: destruction of American values and stability that he can then exploit for personal gain.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump got the riot he craved, and it is quite likely that he did condemn it in what are, for him, “the strongest possible terms.” Because Mr. Trump’s strongest possible terms are inherently weak, supported as he is by neo-Nazis, Klansmen and other white supremacists who helped elevate him to power. This vile sliver of the population is one of Trump’s most loyal constituencies, and they praised him accordingly. “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us,” wrote the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, of the bigot-in-chief.
Mr. Trump probably has trouble condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis because he hired people with those affiliations to work for him. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has been accused of anti-Semitism, famed for running the racist website Breitbart. Other prominent staffers include Seb Gorka, whose family has ties to a Nazi group in Hungary, and Stephen Miller who worked with white supremacist Richard Spencer at Duke University. Mr. Trump’s Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, is one of the most reviled civil rights antagonists in modern American history, denounced over three decades ago by Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For six months, this team has translated their long-standing racist rhetoric into policy: banning Muslims from travel and immigration, targeting voter rights through a “voter fraud” commission based entirely on a xenophobic myth, refusing to mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day, renaming the “Countering Violent Extremism” program “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” and proclaiming that white supremacist terrorist groups would no longer be targeted by the government, cutting funding for groups that help white supremacists leave the fold – and that’s to name but a few initiatives.
The United States was born on stolen land and built by slave labour: white supremacist violence is nothing new. What is new is the sanctioning of white mob violence by a 21st-century White House, to the point that overt racists occupy top-level positions and enact policies that further their aims. Mr. Trump’s win was marked by a surge of white supremacist hate crimes: not in protest, but in celebration that what was once condemned was now embraced at the executive level.
Until Saturday, the GOP has tacitly approved these measures, endorsing Mr. Trump and confirming extremists like Mr. Sessions. But in the wake of the violence of Charlottesville – and facing a historically unpopular president under federal investigation – the tide may have turned. Mr. Trump’s statement stood out for its refusal to name or condemn white supremacist violence in a forthright way, unlike statements from erstwhile GOP Trump lackeys such as Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and even Jeff Sessions himself.
Whether the GOP puts words into action remains to be seen. They should fund investigations of white supremacist groups, reenact the VRA and other voter protection laws and push to remove racists from the White House – including Donald Trump himself, who violated the emoluments clause, likely committed obstruction of justice and collusion, and has proven himself unfit to lead. The task of making America great cannot fall to one who wishes to destroy it.