Back in January, I wrote an article pleading with conservatives to draw a pre-emptive red line. I asked them to conduct a thought experiment: what could Donald Trump do that would be so bad, it would cost him your support?
TL;DR: Your political support of someone should not be unconditional. In fact, you should support ideals, and you should vote for the person who most closely embodies those ideals. Support for a leader irrespective of his actions means you are not an ideological conservative. Rather, you are in cult of personality.
I begged Donald Trump’s supporters to look ahead and draw their line early. Narcissists like Mr. Trump act in a predictable way: they push what is acceptable, and each time you accede to their new boundary, they push it farther. Over time, you find yourself as an apologist for actions that are objectively unacceptable.
On Saturday, Nazis and white supremacists came to Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They came from everywhere, many “peacefully” carrying a Nazi flags and torches, but others equipped with riot gear and weapons. Counter-protesters arrived as well–mostly peaceful, with a few showing up looking for a fight.
Violence ensued. The day culminated with a Nazi driving his car into a crowd, injuring 20 people and killing counter-protester Heather Heyer. Later, a state police helicopter patrolling the event lost control and crashed, killing two state troopers.
The President spoke that afternoon, stating:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”
Today, Mr. Trump clarified to say that racism, neo-Nazism, and the KKK have no place in America. This came after 48 hours of rare silence by the President, and bipartisan criticism of his pale “strongest possible terms.”
We hold these truths to be self-evident
We are, by our founding documents, an egalitarian democracy. We are terrible at it at times. Still, equality and democracy are the goals of our republic.
Equality and democracy aren’t just laws. They are deeper than that: they are why America exists. Unlike most nations, common DNA is not our bond. The ancestral and chosen bond we have is our people’s common commitment to the noble ideals upon which we were founded.
Intellectually, morally, and ethically, any group whose beliefs negate our ideals of equality and democracy is, by definition, counter to the ideals of the United States of America.
Nazis and white supremacists don’t believe we’re all equal. To them, white, “Christian” people are superior to all other races and religions. They don’t believe in democracy. They should each get a vote, but you should not.
Because of that, when the Nazis come marching into to the home of the man who wrote, “All men are created equal,” Americans are right to be disgusted by it. Americans are right to stop them.
Let’s be crystal clear: the President isn’t a pacifist. On Saturday, he wasn’t condemning violence writ large when he condemned the violence “on many sides.” He is fine with violence. A few weeks ago, he advocated rougher treatment of people being arrested. He has threated nuclear war against North Korea and a ground invasion of Venezuela. He offered to pay the legal bills of any of his supporters who faced charges for physical violence against protesters at his rallies. He has praised the leadership style of Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Muammar Gaddafi, Rodrigo Duterte, and even Kim Jong-Un. Donald Trump has zero problems with violence.
No, his statement against bigotry, violence and hatred “on many sides” had a very different rhetorical subtext.
Rhetorical subtext matters
Donald Trump’s clear intent was to create a moral equivalency between Nazis and the counter-protest groups.
Baked into his remarks was the dog whistle to the folks on the right, who repeatedly paint Black Lives Matter as crazed violent “thugs.” It was a nod to all of the folks who believe George Soros hired and bussed in the counter-protesters.
It lent credence to the ethos that underlies his campaign slogan: there was a time when America was great, back when white Christians were in charge, and minorities knew their place. When the KKK and Nazis could march on a Southern city, and minorities would run and hide instead of standing their ground and fighting back.
America was founded on the idea that all men are created equal. We’ve struggled mightily to realize that ambitious ideal. But for 240 years, we’ve slowly marched toward it. We eliminated slavery. We secured the right to vote for Blacks and for women. We integrated schools. We determined that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal. We enacted the ADA, Title IX, the Voting Rights Act, and countless other laws designed to inch us closer to living up to Thomas Jefferson’s declaration to King George III.
Nazis and white supremacists think every one of those steps was a mistake, because they don’t believe in the underlying premise for which we’ve been working. Nazis and white supremacists don’t believe that all men are created equal.
The President was given a chance—in real time—to denounce such cancerous thinking. He was granted an opportunity to take a relatively easy stand. It’s not bold or heroic to say, “Nazis and white supremacists have no place in an egalitarian and democratic society.” It’s pretty self-evident. It should have been automatic and simple.
Viewed through the lens of having Steve Bannon on his team; through the rabid support he enjoys from members of the alt-right; through his anti-Muslim rhetoric on the trail; it’s understandable that “from many sides” was perceived as de facto support of an objectively anti-American cause.
It was de facto support of the “whataboutism” bandied about by his supporters when confronted with any moral shortcoming of Trump or his administration. Sure, it was bad when Donnie punched your grandma in the nose, but what about Hillary Clinton’s emails?! And sure, it was bad when Nazis descended upon Charlottesville, but what about the protesters on the left?
It was viewed as de facto support of the Nazis and white supremacists by the groups themselves, as evidenced by Nazi newsletter The Daily Stormer publishing its gloating self-assurance in the moments after Mr. Trump’s speech:
“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate…on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
It was de facto support when added together with former KKK grand wizard David Duke’s words earlier in the day:
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back, we’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump, and that’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back and that’s what we gotta do.”
Donald Trump’s words, spoken and unspoken, were intentional. He knew the background, the lenses, and the dog whistles. He is a once-in-a-generation savant when it comes to communicating a message.
He knew that he could say something that would (1) be innocent in a vacuum, (2) give him plausible deniability for any perceived ill intent, and (3) further mar the image of the counter-protesters among his base and people who are paying less attention. And he knew that, given his persistent “rolling admissions” of negative information, the public would accept it if he needed to walk it back in a few days.
A few days after Inauguration Day, I asked his supporters, what could Donald Trump do that would be bad enough to cost him your support?
How many of you, back in January, thought that by August, you would be totally fine with the President of the United States purposefully remaining silent on Nazism and white supremacy?
If you are okay with it, is it because equating white supremacist Nazis with American protesters who believe that all men are created equal fits your ideological conservatism?
Is it because you keep accepting just one more step down the road toward evil, and now, thousands of “one more steps” in, you’re miles off track and don’t know how you got here?
Or is it because you are unconditionally and unquestioningly supportive of Donald Trump, even when his actions run counter to your core beliefs and our nation’s founding principles?