Freedom for all: Principle on a Precipice

Press accounts in the aftermath of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia are replete with comments by President Donald Trump’s supporters that his statements concerning the postulated joint responsibility for the violence there, on the part the white supremacists who organized the events, and counter protesters, whom he labeled the “alt-left,” were “no big deal.” His statements simply represented “common sense.” Many of these stories also quote the President’s strongest supporters applauding his efforts to dismantle political correctness and to “take down the bullies” with these comments.[1] Many Trump advocates have also suggested that to conclude otherwise is simply the result of partisan differences. I continue to read these reports to understand the rationales offered by Trump’s base for his behavior, but I have done so in recent days with mounting dismay and incredulity. I say incredulity because the hate groups’ rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer and injuries to 19 more individuals, was never about “political correctness,” nor was it common-sensical. Nor, indeed, are condemnations of what happened there partisan. The death and injury of innocent people at the hand of an individual motivated by hate is not a partisan question. Instead, like the nihilistic act of one of its own, who drove his car into a group of counter protestors at high speed, the White Supremacist rally was itself the product of raw hatred and discrimination. That animosity was displayed publicly in anti-Semitic chants based on those of the Nazis of World War II, in the remarks of hate group leaders speaking on the record of their loathing for non-whites and Jews, and of their veneration for Trump, who they are convinced (if one believes their leaders’ public pronouncements at any rate) supports their racist agenda.

The President refused, ultimately, to condemn those groups for their embrace of Nazism, racism, nihilism and vicious inequality. Instead, as noted, he argued that the white supremacists and counter protestors pushed and shoved one another that day, and as such, must be considered jointly responsible and morally equivalent for all that occurred. The President’s argument is both outrageous and irrelevant. It is so because it does not address the central fact of the situation to which Trump was nominally responding: the death and injury to a score of innocents by an individual who was in Charlottesville to attend a rally motivated by hate and calls for inequality. It defies belief that any U.S. public official, let alone the President, would embrace this “moral equivalence” argument as an adequate response to the horror wrought by the race-based hatred of its perpetrators.

Nonetheless, the President did so equivocate, and he has been widely, rightly and roundly condemned for his stance and refusal to acknowledge that one side in Charlottesville sought to stand for freedom, equality and civil rights for all Americans, while the other shouted white supremacy and Nazi slogans and killed and maimed. Trump was deeply wrong in principle not to call out the haters for what and who they are. That fact left his supporters in the difficult position of having to rationalize the indefensible to deal with the cognitive dissonance his actions created for them. To do so they turned to what is now a hoary truth within their ranks: that what the President was really doing was attacking political correctness and calling matters as he saw them, and any disagreement with him was mere partisan posturing. The trouble with this claim is the obvious fact that those who paraded, accompanied by Nazi flags and symbols, were marching for hate and their rhetoric had nothing whatever to do with posited political correctness or partisanship. Instead, it had everything to do with the deprivation of civil liberties and equality for minorities of various sorts.

But the political correctness and partisanship rationale was nonetheless offered in interviews by his supporters as justification for Trump’s now public demonstration of his absolute absence of any moral sense, empathy or understanding of America’s Constitution. Interestingly, those individuals adopting this position were willing to commit the same logical fallacy they had embraced in order to support Trump as he campaigned. Time and again, as Trump attacked Jews, African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, or women or any of a multitude of other groups during his campaign for office, his supporters claimed he was just saying what he thought and attacking political correctness. He may indeed have been saying what he thought, but that has once again been revealed to have nothing to do with correcting perceived overzealous rhetoric aimed at protecting the rights of specific groups in society. Instead, it has been shown to be what it always was, an open attack on anyone he could scapegoat or demonize to mobilize voter support on the basis of those citizens’ worst instincts. And it is those screams of adulation that Trump craves, whatever the costs to the body politic of his public rhetoric and positions, and however antithetical to the nation’s regime principles those stands may be.

Trump continues to retain the support of approximately 34 percent of Americans and a solid majority of those aligning with the Republican party (although both numbers are trending downward) and it appears he is doing so because his remaining backers are finding ways to rationalize vilifying and demonizing specific groups and individuals and targeting them for contempt and worse because of their race or ethnicity or religion. That such is dangerous in any polity dedicated to freedom is too obvious to belabor. History teaches that when such occurs, tyranny is the result. In any case, those now supporting the President can no longer contend he is attacking political correctness, or that foes of his assaults on minorities are simply partisans. Instead, his base of support must now admit he has embraced groups whose reason for being is to deprive specific Americans of their civil liberties. In short, shouting “political correctness” and partisanship to the rooftops is no defense for embracing those calling for systematically undermining the civil rights and freedom of millions of American citizens and residents.

I confess that I am wary of imagining that all of the President’s supporters are the equivalents of the hate marchers in Charlottesville, but those individuals who now align with him following his very public decision to celebrate those groups can no longer argue they are unaware of the depravity he has embraced. They must know they are supporting one who has, by his morally empty choices, de facto attacked the civil rights of millions of innocent citizens on the basis of their specific characteristics and backgrounds. The tragedy in Charlottesville should occasion a measure of introspection, particularly among those of Trump’s supporters willing to attend his rallies and scream epithets at his vanquished election opponent for crimes she did not commit, or commend him for flouting his willingness to sow discord in this country as he shouts lies about the ruinous actions of “others,” who do not merit, as he contends, the right to be Americans.

In one of his countless moments of self-infatuation and congratulation, Trump compared himself to this country’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.[2] He, and those now rationalizing his continued demagoguery as partisanship or as attacks on political correctness, would do well to heed Lincoln’s call in his Second Inaugural Address and to work instead for unity and freedom for all:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.[3]

 

Notes

[1] Tavernise, Sabrina, “A Deal Breaker for Trump’s Supporters? Nope. Not this Time, Either,” The New York Times, August 19, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/19/us/politics/trump-supporters.html?&moduleDetail=section-news-1&action=click&contentCollection=Politics&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=article Accessed, August 20, 2017.

[2] Cilliza, Chris. “Donald Trump ranked himself 2nd on a list of ‘most presidential’ Presidents,” CNN, July 26, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/26/politics/donald-trump-abe-lincoln/index.html Accessed August 20, 2017.

[3] Lincoln, Abraham, “Second Inaugural Address,” Yale University Law School Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp Accessed August 20, 2017.