There is Only One Side
If the first few months of President Trump’s term have revealed anything, it is that the human capacity for normalization is seemingly unlimited. The body politic, it seems, is so eager to rationalize this administration’s near-constant violations of ethics, decency, and political norms that it has lost the ability to properly respond to looming threats. Take the rising tide of racism and anti-Semitism, undoubtedly sourced in a sweeping populist movement rooted in appeals to fragile, white identity. Trump’s personal views on race are, at their most generous, “archaic.” This is, after all, a man who established his political identity by undermining the nation’s first black president on baseless claims of illegitimate heritage and continued to do so despite ample evidence to the contrary. He remains the man that captivated white America with the demonization of immigrants, particularly Latinos (“rapists and murderers,” the attacks on a Judge Curiel’s impartiality) and Muslims (calls for a complete ban on Muslim immigration, attacks on the Gold Star Khan family).
The semantic question of whether Trump is an outright “racist” is of less concern than the practical reality: that white supremacists believe that they currently have an ally in the Oval Office. For the sake of this piece, let’s give President Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume that this belief is wholly unfounded and that our Commander-in-Chief is as egalitarian as you and me. By examining Trump’s recent actions through this assumptive prism, we can best evaluate the status of our President as he relates to his most vile supporters.
Though impossible to recount the full breadth of national shame that delivered us to this point, a handful of critical events deserve mention. Just weeks ago, a vile coalition of the alt-right demonstrators, Ku Klux Klan members, white supremacists, and Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia for the aptly named “Unite the Right” rally. There they hoped to exercise their constitutional right to speak freely about ridding the nation of pernicious globalist (read: Jewish) influences. Most attendees, it seemed, were less well-versed in the art of the dog-whistle, opting instead to chant “Jews will not replace us!” and reintroducing the world to the Nazi slogan “blood and soil!” After a night of wholesome torch-bearing, the vermin readied themselves as any peaceful protesters might be expected to – by arming themselves to the teeth. These rabid fans of our President, as private conversations leaked later revealed, fully intended to respond violently to the faintest hint of resistance. Unsurprisingly, these fantasies were brought to fruition when an incensed white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 14 and killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer.
What is the appropriate response to Nazi sympathizers (the murderer was an avowed fan of Adolf Hitler) carrying out acts of terrorism on American soil? The mere fact that such a question must be posed is an inherently disturbing development. Yet, Americans could rest assured that a man with such pointed criticisms of The Pope (“disgraceful”), Meryl Streep (“overrated”, “flunky”), London Mayor Sadiq Khan (“pathetic”), John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”), the news media (“enemy of the people”), a gold star family, a disabled reporter, and near-countless others would certainly have forceful words for legitimately murderous Nazis.
Unfortunately, albeit hardly surprisingly, our Commander-in-Chief simply was not up to the task of resoundingly denouncing hate. Instead, Trump chose to harp about “blame on both sides,” attacking counter-protesters for gathering “without a permit” and “charging” at the alt-right demonstrators. Where the universal response from pols in both parties was straightforward and appropriate – that is, the unequivocal denouncing of these abject national embarrassments – the President insisted upon praising the “good people” that elected to march with fanatical racists. As is Trump’s modus operandi, this revealing statement is wholly self-absolving. It indicates his belief in the fundamental goodness of those who welcome the support of white supremacists in achieving their political goals.
Following two full days of entirely warranted outrage from all sides of the political spectrum, Trump delivered strained remarks wherein he denounced “racist violence.” Even if he hadn’t walked back these clearly insincere statements just a day later (the video evidence betrays a speaker who so clearly does not want anyone to hear him), the damage had long been done. Every second during which that first statement hung without being rescinded legitimized the nation’s worst fringes. Readers of the Daily Stormer, the most prominent white supremacist website, wrote that “Trump comments were good… nothing specific against us… he said he loves us all… when asked to condemn he just walked out of the room.” No amount of feigned discomfort with hate groups could disabuse these Nazis of the notion that our President is their ally.
In the following weeks, the Trump camp skillfully managed to turn the debate from the president’s overtures to white supremacists into a culture-war-laden clash over the removal of Confederate statues. Pundits proceeded to draw moral equivalencies between violent Nazis and those that sought to counter them. And in that tumult, the nation has lost sight of the most critical issue: namely, what to do about a President who, at the very least, believes he cannot survive without the support of those that yearn for an American ethnic cleansing.
Picture, for a moment, yourself in our President’s ignoble shoes. Let’s suppose that a significant portion of the nation believed you to be sympathetic to groups like the Klan. Would you not take ample care to avoid any further actions that might be interpreted as fodder for racists?
Apparently, Trump lacks even that modicum of basic rationality. As a part of his years-long development into a racial firebrand, Trump has continually indicated his support for notorious Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. To name just a handful of Arpaio’s egregious violations of human decency: he positively described his makeshift prison as a “concentration camp;” bragged about how inmates were subjected to the Arizona heat (one prisoner died when temperatures reached 109°F); forced Latino prisoners into a segregated area with electric fencing; forced a woman to give birth in shackles; arrested Phoenix New Times reporters for unfavorable coverage (and was forced to pay millions in settlements); faked an assassination attempt as a re-election ploy and detained an innocent man for four years for committing the “crime.” A simple Google search reveals more abuses of power than there is space here to relate. Critically, Arpaio was the second-most prominent “birther,” waging a baseless war of legitimacy with President Obama.
Following a rambling campaign rally, the President announced that he would in fact be pardoning the now-retired Arpaio, a man who was convicted of federal contempt of court in July. Despite having signed an agreement to stop arresting Latinos on the baseless suspicion that they might be undocumented, Arpaio maintained this horrid practice for well over a year. Yet President Trump hastily legitimized this corruption of the very institution of policing without a second’s hesitation.
What kind of statement does such misuse of the pardon power make to millions of patriotic Latino Americans? With the stroke of a pen, President Trump gave explicit notice to the entirety of a significant minority group that its formerly God-given rights are now negotiable. What’s more, white supremacists like Arpaio can now rest assured that the full force of the Executive branch will be employed to protect them from any lawful consequences. Even if Trump is not a white supremacist, it seems inarguable that he remains comfortable making such overtures to this outspoken component of his base.
The question of whether President Trump is sympathetic to those with racist and anti-Semitic viewpoints or simply a deluded pragmatist taking support from whichever corners he receives it is far from cut and dry. But the fact of the matter remains that white supremacists, once pushed to the fringes of polite society, feel emboldened by the dog-whistles that Trump’s more egalitarian supporters simply write off as missteps. “We are determined to take our country back,” former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke put it. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” The line drawn from birtherism, comments like “rapists and murderers,” the wall, the Muslim ban, and every questionable decision since, to now-empowered Nazi Trumpists committing vehicular murder is a clear and straight one. White supremacists not only recognize this connection, but publicly celebrate it. It remains difficult to see a path through which Trump can reclaim the reigns on his rapidly spiraling presidency, especially after two years of making such poorly coded appeals to the dregs of society. Excising the impulse toward bolstering white supremacy, no matter how it may reshape his policy agenda, might resemble something like a workable starting point.