Time to remember that ‘we are the change we seek.’ America can move forward even as this president marches us backwards.
President Trump does not generally do calm and balanced. He’s more of a fire-and-fury kind of guy. So it was a bit bracing to see him commenting Saturday in such a soothing, evenhanded way, on the violence in Charlottesville, Va. He denounced “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides. It has been going on for a long time in our country — not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America.” He went on to call for mutual affection among Americans and to point out that children should be allowed to play outside without fear.
Not that the goings-on in Virginia had anything to do with random violence against children. This particular violence arose from the intentionally provocative actions of an array of hate groups. It culminated with a driver speeding into a crowd of counterprotesters and killing a young woman. In one of many videos that surfaced in the aftermath, a shocked bystander mutters, “Holy sh–, that Nazi just drove into people.” Two state troopers died when a helicopter patrolling the area crashed.
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The so-called Unite the Right rally drew some of the nation’s most vocal racists — from newer movements, such as the alt-right, and from such senescent groups as the Ku Klux Klan. David Duke, a former KKK leader who ran a competitive race for governor of Louisiana in 1991, told reporters the event was “a turning point” for America: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
Given these groups’ strong identification with Trump, many expected — or hoped — that the president would distance himself by calling them out for their contemptible notions. These, after all, are folks who are so distraught that race-based slavery ended that they still worship the general who fought to keep it alive, and so consumed with anger that they would destroy the country to keep their supposed inferiors in their place.
Yet the best that our presidential archangel of anger and insult could summon was a broad condemnation of violence and a weak appeal to unity before veering into a boast about the nation’s unemployment rate. It was more than a little surreal, like watching someone denounce concentration camps in Auschwitz by arguing that there had been violence on all sides as Jews were herded into gas chambers.
That sort of evenhandedness is not just misleading, it’s morally repugnant. But to expect anything else is probably asking too much of a man who openly caters to xenophobia and racism — who started his political career with a shout-out to “birthers,” who launched his presidential campaign with a slur against Mexicans, and who made demonization of Muslims into a crusade. Indeed, it’s probably asking too much of any politician that he denounces the most loyal part of his base.
And the president is certainly justified in voicing his “not Donald Trump” non sequitur as a way, presumably, of exonerating himself for the excesses of his political partisans. Going back to the time of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, the Republican Party made a deal with Satan: agreeing to warmly welcome all those angry at civil right laws, busing and other assaults on segregation, and to shyly look away when that anger veered into bigotry.
Trump, in other words, is not responsible for white backlash. He is merely its most recent champion and beneficiary. And his refusal to denounce it is not that big a deal. It simply means that others must take up the challenge, in the same way that others are taking up the challenge of fighting against global warming and for gender equality and integrity in government.
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In February 2007, announcing his candidacy for president, Sen. Barack Obama observed, “We’ve been told that climate change is a hoax, and that tough talk and an ill-conceived war can replace diplomacy. … We’re distracted from our real failures, and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants.” A year later, on Super Tuesday, Obama declared, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. … We are the change that we seek. We are the hope.”
Trump does not have Obama’s clear-headedness, empathy, optimism or facility with language. He’s a barely articulate agitator and grievance-monger, hiding behind soldiers whose bravery he clumsily mimics as he cavalierly tosses off threats to countries he can safely disdain. He is not a forward thinker capable of bringing the country together. So he marches backward as fast as he can. Our future does not belong to him. It belongs to us, if we will take it.
Ellis Cose, senior fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union and author of The End of Anger, The Rage of a Privileged Classand other books, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisCose
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