John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a CBS senior national correspondent and Chief Political Analyst. He is also a Contributing Writer to The Atlantic and is co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The Charlottesville march and the presidency from The Hardest Job in the World

“On Many Sides” Donald Trump faced a test of racial healing eight months into his presidency in Charlottesville, Virginia. Like Charleston, the city was wrestling with its long histories of enslaved labor and racist policies. Charlottesville is the home of the University of Virginia. It is also the location of Monticello, the home of the school’s founder and the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. At Monticello in the summer of 2017, curators applied the last touches to an exhibit commemorating Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson and long bleached from history books, who cared for his children and with whom he fathered several. For years, the university and Monticello had been working to recognize the contribution of the enslaved individuals who arranged the bricks of those buildings that tourists traveled from all over the world to admire, who made possible the very democracy built on ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice propounded by those, like Jefferson, who enslaved them. While the contributions of the enslaved were being elevated on one side of town, the Charlottesville City Council voted on a petition written and circulated by Zyahna Bryant, a young black woman in high school, to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who had fought to maintain slavery.28 This effort became the pretext for a “Unite the Right” rally on an August weekend, organized by people who protested the removal and the renaming of Lee Park, in which the statue was located.29 On August 11, white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through the center of the university jostling tiki torches in a nighttime parade, shouting “Jews will not replace us.”30 The next day, more neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and armed militias pressed their case downtown, carrying Nazi flags and signs that read THE JEWISH MEDIA IS GOING DOWN31 and DIVERSITY = WHITE GENOCIDE.32 Clashes ensued in the brutal heat, and one of the skinheads floored his Dodge Challenger into a cluster of counterprotesters, killing thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer.33 It was a ready-made moment for an action-hungry president in which he could fulfill the role of consoler and moral leader. The moral high ground was clear, level, and open. It would be hard to find groups more in conflict with American ideals than white supremacists and neo-Nazis. President Trump, who is constantly alive to personal slights, might also have found it personally offensive that he was being used to support a racist cause. They had invoked his name in their putrid cause. “We are determined to take our country back,” said David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, at the kickoff to the rally. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. 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.”34 By custom, duty, and morality, Trump could not be indifferent about the racism in Charlottesville. The president spoke from his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course on the day of the clashes. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides—on many sides,” Trump said. “So we want to get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville and we want to study it and we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country, where things like this can happen.”35

This was not moral clarity, but moral flattening. The point the president chose to stress—repeating it for emphasis—was that the hatred and bigotry were displayed “on many sides.” But the only bigots marching for an ideology of hate were the white supremacists. Anger stirred in opposition to them was not a reason for presidential condemnation, but elevation. The president, who has an uncommon ability to single out individuals and groups of people for abuse, did not mention the white supremacists at all in his remarks. This was part of a pattern first displayed during the campaign. Donald Trump had been accused by Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of a “textbook definition of a racist comment” when Trump said that Gonzalo P. Curiel, an American judge of Mexican heritage, could not treat him fairly in a case involving Trump University.36 On another occasion during the 2016 race, the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, chastised Trump for his “seeming ambivalence about David Duke and the KKK.”37 Among the protesters marching against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee were vocal and visible white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers. The response from fellow Republicans in the aftermath of Charlottesville was just as swift. “Mr. President—we must call evil by its name,” said Colorado Republican senator Cory Gardner. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”38 Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser, said, “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK.”39 Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not defend the president when asked about his remarks on Fox News Sunday. “The president speaks for himself,” he said.40

President Trump has changed the presidency by speaking for himself. A signature aspect of this characteristic is his facility with quick denunciations of melting intensity. In June 2017, the president criticized the mayor of London for being soft on terrorists just hours after his city was attacked.41 He dinged California forest management officials in the middle of record fires that were scorching acres in November 2018.42 The president sent twenty-seven tweets about NFL players protesting racial injustice by choosing to kneel during the national anthem, a practice he found repugnant.43 He tweeted eighty-four times suggesting that President Obama was not born in America.44 Whether his target is a federal judge, Gold Star parents, or weather-battered officials in Puerto Rico, Donald Trump says what is on his mind immediately and doesn’t sweat the nuances. By contrast, the president’s six tweets in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence never referred to racism or bigotry or white nationalism.45 When Trump is passionate about something, it’s unmistakable. So why did the president lapse into vagueness when it came to Charlottesville? Theories abound: He didn’t want to criticize whites who voted for him out of a sense of racial grievance; he didn’t want to disparage Southern whites who share his view that attacks on General Lee are attacks on American heritage; he didn’t want to give in to the left on anything, because he believes they are hypocrites for ignoring their own violent fringe. The White House press office later clarified that the president meant to include the white supremacists.46 The next day, at a press conference, President Trump did just that, denouncing racists unambiguously in prepared remarks. As the press conference wore on, however, the president strayed from the script and lost his way, or, as his critics would put it, got back on track. He returned to moral equivalence. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he insisted to reporters, “and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.”47 At a press conference designed to explain why he hadn’t immediately called out the racists, the president was boasting about having immediately called out the people who were attacking the racists. Speaking of the protesters who wanted to keep the Robert E. Lee statue, the president said that “there were very fine people on both sides.” He hastened to add, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” The president did not say, as has often been claimed, that white supremacists were “very fine people.”48 (How people who march alongside racists and the flutter of Nazi flags can be characterized as “very fine people” is another matter, however.) The president was passionate that these fine people were possibly being maligned. He was also passionate when he interrogated reporters who used the term “alt-right.”49 Why hadn’t they used the term “alt-left”? It was an asymmetric application of outrage and passion, contrary to our expectations of an office whose occupant is meant to use emotion to speak with moral force and to drive the country toward unity and healing. “President Trump took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally and people like Ms. Heyer,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump supporter. “I, along with many others, do not endorse this moral equivalency.”50 The events that took place in Charlottesville cried out for a typical presidential response, answering tragedy by reminding the country of its enduring values. When presidents do this well, they can transform sorrow into inspiration. If they do it exceptionally well, they may one day deserve a monument and the designation of being “presidential.”

Dickerson, John. The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency (pp. 124-126). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

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