In August 2017, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, planned to take down its statue of General Robert E. Lee in its Emancipation Park. Opposition to the removal of this statue spurred far-right wing activists to organize a protest; the “Unite the Right” rally took place on August 11th and 12th. This rally saw hundreds of white nationalists and supremacist parade around the city holding tiki torches while wearing white polos and khakis – dressed in a manner that almost makes their hateful rhetoric seem polished and polite.
The “Unite the Right” rally was met with counter-protesters. The counter-protesters marched to Emancipation Park from St. Paul’s Memorial Church, and the right-wingers started from McIntire Park on the other side of the city. Within hours, the white nationalists and counter-protesters met and clashed. Many of these encounters became violent. Tensions grew and culminated in an act of terrorism in which white supremacist Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, resulting in the death of Heather Heyer.
The violent nature of the clashes solicited a variety of responses. The majority of political commentators condemned the white supremacists and the terrorist attack. After all, the protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally were explicitly racist in nature. However, some, most notably President Trump, seemed to be hesitant to condemn the white supremacists as the primary cause of the attack. On August 12th, the day after the protests, he said in a press conference: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” With this quote, the President seemed to be presenting some sort of moral equivalency between the white supremacists and the counter-protesters. He blamed a violent “alt-left” as much as he blamed the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally attendees.
The use of moral equivalency in such a situation is alarming because it makes white supremacy and its rise within this country seem less significant and fails to truly paint it as an impactful and iniquitous ideology. The president could have simply said that he condemns the neo-Nazis and white nationalists. He could have called James Alex Fields Jr. a terrorist, but he instead doubled down on his claim that “both sides” were to blame during a press conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan on August 15th. His condemnation needed to be quick and deliberate in order to have the effect it truly needed. President Trump’s unwillingness to quickly label what transpired as white supremacist terrorism is hypocritical, for he often criticized his political opponents, such as former President Barack Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, for not immediately categorizing acts of terrorism as “Islamic terrorism” with expediency.
It was especially important for President Trump tocondemn the “Unite the Right” because many of these rally goers are fervent supporters of his administration. Signs from his campaign were plentiful at the rally, and chants such as “Make America White Again” clearly inspired by his famous slogan, were common. His campaign and the resulting changes in the political climate of the United States are partly to blame for the recent uptick in the popularity of white supremacy. His rhetoric throughout his campaign appealed to nativist beliefs; he made immigration and the fight against Islamic terrorism a focal point of his message These issues struck a chord with racists who view racial minorities as the cause of America’s problems. They bought into Trump’s words and felt as if he was supporting their ideology because of his focus on these topics. Trump’s hesitation to disavow white supremacy was exemplified early on in his campaign when he said that he “didn’t know” former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and refused to plainly condemn Duke’s support for him. Trump actually did know of Duke’s antics. In fact, Trump cited Duke as one of the reasons he chose not to campaign for president under the Reform Party back in 2000.
President Trump and other government officials must emphatically denounce white supremacy and make an effort to quell racial tensions in this country. However, President Trump seems to be going in the opposite direction: he recently insulted NFL players who have been protesting against racial injustices.