Because I write so often on politics and culture, people who know me often bring questions or something they’d like to discuss. The thing I keep hearing lately, especially from folks who aren’t big political partisans, is a question about why Trump’s comments regarding Charlottesville are such a big deal. I want to try and address that.
Let’s begin with an admission. Much of what the president said about events in Charlottesville was factually accurate. There were people in the counter-demonstration who were ready to use violence and who were provocative. If the question has to do with simple law and order, it is entirely possible that the counter-demonstrators were the spark that lit the fuse. The problem is that to see events in this light lacks substantial context. And in this case, context is everything.
It would be one thing if the Charlottesville protesters were your standard Southern men who collect Civil War (or the War between the States as many would have it) memorabilia and who cherish the gentlemanly reputation of Robert E. Lee. Whether you agree with them or not, that’s a debate that can be had without necessarily entailing a strongly racist view. After all, the defenders of Lee typically see him as something of a tragic figure. He was arguably the best military man in the nation, but his sympathies were with his native Virginia. Had Virginia been a Union state, Lee might well have ended up as president of the United States. I’ve never heard these folks promote Lee as some kind of champion of the slavery cause.
But the reality seems different. It appears that the Charlottesville protesters did, indeed, embrace something like white nationalism. If we put the best possible face on it (which takes some work), then we can see them as people who believe that the European culture promoted the highest level of civilization. Unfortunately, they believe that to continue enjoying western civilization artificial or political means must be employed to keep minorities out or limited to marginal numbers. That’s where we get away from the best possible face (which still has problems) and move toward the marred side of the Janus profile where white supremacy lurks. They are not really defending Lee so much as they are cynically using Lee to promote an ugly form of racial superiority.
When President Trump entered the picture, which was made necessary by the ultimately fatal consequence of the clash of protesters, he spoke almost as if addressing two gangs of kids who had mixed it up and needed to be dressed down and sent home. To paraphrase, “Hey, now, you kids are better than this. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Clean yourselves up and go home.”
The problem is that this is the wrong frame. Even if both sets of protesters were bad in certain ways, the simple fact is still that one set is setting forth a form of white supremacy (white nationalism can’t get away from that charge) and the other is opposing (unfortunately, violently) the first group’s speech. Yes, it’s bad to start swinging clubs at white nationalists holding a demonstration. But there is nothing good about the particular demonstration in the first place. Like I said, they aren’t the good-hearted apologists for Lee. They are promoting the idea that western civilization has to be protected from many non-European races.
In addition, the President didn’t speak to the situation with American history adequately in mind. In all my 47 years I have hated carrying around the legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism. It seemed like some unjust tax I have always had to pay. But the simple fact is that I do live in this particular world with the history that we have and it can’t be escaped. I would never dream of speaking about a protest like the one in Charlottesville without fully recognizing that this is not a conflict conducted in a vacuum. The history is fresh enough that white supremacy connects to a time when it had a lot more power behind it. To fail to adequately describe that reality as a president is to fail in the spiritual and emotional sense of leading.
These are the reasons why President Trump’s comments caused so much distress. He isn’t living in the cutthroat world of New York real estate any more. Neither is he any longer the type of celebrity who benefits from any story so long as his name is correctly spelled. He’s the leader of a country with both a tragic and a great history that still wields more power than almost all the others combined. Shooting from the hip is just not an option.