Politicians are not necessarily responsible for the odious characters who attach themselves to their cause. That was the dilemma facing Donald Trump this week when faced with questions about the white supremacists and KKK members who are supporting his bid for the GOP presidential nomination. They include the former Klan leader and virulent anti-Semite David Duke, white nationalist leader Jared Taylor, and contributors to the Vanguard News Network, the largest white supremacist website. At The Realist, another white supremacist site, an author even attacked New Jersey Jewish News for publishing an article critical of Trump, citing the article as proof that “organized Jewish interests” are “hostile to the well-being and future prospects of the White race.”
If Trump hopes to distance himself from such repellant characters, however, he is doing an awkward job of it. He has retweeted words and images generated by hate groups. When asked on CNN whether he would publicly condemn Duke and other white supremacists, Trump demurred, saying, “Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?” — only later claiming, unconvincingly, that he misheard the question. Following a storm of criticism, Trump at last tweeted, “regarding David Duke — I disavow.”
That is not, however, the strong and ringing statement that is called for. Many of Trump’s policy prescriptions — deporting nearly 11 million people living in the United States without permission, halting immigration by Muslims, and demonizing Mexicans — resonate strongly with the radical Right. Trump may not share their racist and anti-Semitic views, but he has a responsibility to say loudly and unequivocally why they don’t deserve a place in his or any campaign. His supporters too — like NJ Gov. Chris Christie — must also condemn the bigots and racists who are seizing on Trump’s appeal.
If any of these politicians are unsure who these characters are, the Anti-Defamation League has released a helpful list of extremist groups and their leaders. This isn’t just about disavowing unhelpful allies, but isolating a lunatic fringe that is responsible for a worrying rise in hate rhetoric and violence in recent years. Such groups are not just opponents of “political correctness” but proponents of a bigoted and divisive agenda that targets blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews. If Trump hopes to “make America great again,” he must start by condemning those who would, if given the chance and the platform, destroy the American promise of liberty and justice for all.