Donald Trump based much of his successful presidential campaign on an “us vs. them” approach to American society. His underlying message was that the good citizens of this country are under siege from others, outsiders, whether they were Mexican rapists or foreign-born Muslims or others to be feared and kept at bay. When he was elected, some of us thought the presidency would elevate him and that he would see a priority of his new role in seeking to unite the nation rather than further divide it. But his inauguration speech, with its stark images of “American carnage” and resentment of much of the rest of the world, indicated that nothing had changed, and the fear that nothing ever would.
In the wake of the president’s initial refusal to condemn the neo-Nazis, racists, anti-Semites, and other white nationalists and supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, we are deeply disappointed — but not surprised.
Whether he has courted the so-called alt-right for the last two years or simply refused to acknowledge or disown its support, the president must take responsibility for animating a shameful segment of society. As Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a conference call with Jewish media on Monday, Trump has “emboldened” bigots “to move out of the shadows and into the spotlight.”
In keeping with a disturbingly familiar pattern, the president, after increasing criticism of his initial statement had grown to a crescendo, stepped up and said the right thing on Monday, reading a statement that condemned “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
In April, after not mentioning the suffering of Jews specifically in his Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation months earlier, the president acknowledged the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
The question is why he’s so resistant to condemn this white nationalist movement? Why is it that a man so quick to publicly and angrily call out everyone from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his key quarterback in Congress, to actress Meryl Streep to Merck’s African-American CEO Kenneth Frazier, is somehow unwilling or unable to blame violent bloodshed on American-style storm troopers giving the Sieg Heil salute, wearing swastikas, cursing Jews, and beating people up — and worse? Could it be because there are West Wing aides sympathetic to the cause? (There was mounting pressure this week from inside and outside the White House for the president to fire his chief strategist, former Breitbart editor and alt-right hero Stephen Bannon.)
We cannot read the president’s mind or heart. But it’s worth noting that while he has banked on his Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren for capital in the Jewish community and against the notion that he is a racist, once again he has failed to denounce anti-Semitism — David Duke, the anti-Hillary tweet showing a six-pointed star next to a pile of money, the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, the JCC bomb threats, and now Charlottesville.
Republicans and Democrats in Washington, state and local officials, and civic leaders and clergy around the country were specific in immediately naming and blaming the instigators of the deadly rally. It seemed as if only the president was hesitant to take sides.
Now we’ve reached the point where the president makes news for condemning neo-Nazis, an incredibly low bar. But words aren’t enough to stem the swaggering haters from continuing their violent rallies. The response from the alt-right has been that Trump didn’t mean it, but rather was “bullied” into his second statement by the Jewish media. Adding to the confusion, on Tuesday the president doubled down on his initial comments, blaming “both sides” for the riot and lashing out at the “alt-left.”
The government needs a plan to prevent further bloodshed, an effort to counter the next “Unite the Right” march with a nation united in resisting an ideology that seeks to negate the Torah’s most elemental teaching: that all are created equal in God’s image.
Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Michael Signer, suddenly thrust into the eye of the storm, suggested this week that in this tense new era in American life, a balance must be struck between freedom of expression, which he stands foursquare behind, and public safety. That kind of reappraisal seems to be in order these days.