Just before the 2016 election, J. BROOKS SPECTOR re-read, with increasing apprehension, two classic dystopian novels about a racial populist who wins the presidency – Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. And then there was Donald Trump’s epic failure of leadership after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. But there could have been a different way he spoke about it.
By now, pretty much everybody on the planet, except for a few isolated monks on distant mountains who have taken vows of silence and who have no access to news media or the internet, has heard about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Donald Trump’s subsequent rolling debacle in shirking any real denunciation of neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, KKK exponents, extreme alt.rightists, skinheads, white supremacists, and assorted white ultra-nationalists.
The immediate trouble began when hundreds of people, comprising that motley pack, converged on Friday night from around the country in a small university town in the rolling hills of Virginia’s largely rural piedmont. They held a torchlight march, shouting old Nazi slogans like “blood and soil”, and similar, even nastier racist taunts. They were ostensibly in solidarity with people opposing Charlottesville’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from a town park. (Lee had been the South’s pre-eminent general in the Civil War, although he had no real connection to the town historically.)
As with South Africa and the statues and reminders of Cecil Rhodes, statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags – with their distinctive diagonal blue cross and white stars on a red field – have been a visceral flashpoint for many. In America, the symbols of the Confederacy continue to be stark reminders of the southern heritage of slavery and – even after the end of that institution – the legal second-class citizenship for African-Americans for another century.
On Saturday, the marchers then held their second march, but this time they were opposed by other demonstrators, largely drawn from the Charlottesville area. Assorted scuffles began to break out, a number of anti-protesters were seriously assaulted, and then one of the neo-Nazis, who had driven to the Virginia town from Ohio, drove directly into the crowd of anti-protesters, killing one and injuring 19 more.
As the violence was brought into the homes of many millions in the US and around the world via the media, on Saturday afternoon, President Trump chose to issue a statement that seemed to demonstrate his true feelings. He seemed to be insisting that these two “sides” were morally equivalent, and, in his words, that many fine people had been part of the night march. This was despite the fact they were marching with swastika flags, torches and assorted despicable banners and posters. Trump’s comments were virtually universally panned – globally – as having demonstrated a dreadful lack of any moral sensibility, and an alarming willingness to embrace the fairness of having the racists’ positions becoming part of the nation’s political culture.
Unflappable television broadcasters and commentators were virtually stunned into speechlessness by Trump’s comments; numbers of Republican office-holders issued strong denials of any such faux moral equivalence; numerous business leaders (including the black CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals) withdrew from White House advisory bodies, and a torrent of editorials, op-eds, and electronic critiques flooded the country. By Monday evening, at a press availability designed to speak to other issues, Trump read – from a TelePrompter nogal – a much more carefully worded statement denouncing racism, anti-Semitism, and ultra-nationalist right-wing fanaticism, in light of the firestorm of protest over his earlier remarks. While it was worded carefully and largely phrased appropriately to the circumstances, more than one commentator noted the awkward resemblance to one of those hostage videos designed to show the world that an unhappy captive was still alive in some dreadful mountain fastness.
As the national debate and harsh commentary continued unabated about whether or not the killing in Charlottesville should be termed an example of domestic terrorism, and how, more broadly, government and its leadership must deal with this kind of extremism and the mindset that supports it, Trump put his oar in it again. Badly. Very badly.
On Tuesday afternoon, at a media event in New York City at – naturally – in the gaudy lobby of Trump Tower and presumably designed to highlight his plans for infrastructure investment, Trump tossed Monday’s rational statement right into the rubbish tip and went right back to all of the errors of his first appearance. And then some.
According to Trump version three, the two sets of people in Charlottesville were morally equivalent; fine people were marching together with those with the swastika flags and torches; violent people in the anti-protest crowd were horrific; that he needed all the facts that he only learned eventually, and that those who saw the marches on TV could not know. The whole dirty laundry list of uglies crawled right back out of the gutter via Trump’s lips. He battled and baited reporters, demanding that they explain why Generals Lee and Stonewall Jackson’s statues were such a problem, and that by the same logic. those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would soon meet the same fate. Through all of this, Trump demonstrated such a monumental failure of understanding of history and memory that even the historians called in to discuss this ongoing fiasco of Trumpian vapidness on television were practically shocked into submission. And incredulity.
And so now the question has become, well beyond the specifics of what happened in Charlottesville: has Donald Trump now actually demonstrated such a lack of any moral centre or understanding of the core of the nation’s being that he has forfeited the right to lead a nation?
But Daily Maverick inevitably has a friend in the US who has a relative who has a partner who works for the Trump White House. His job is a rather menial one, true, but, in the course of his duties emptying those “burn bags” of classified discarded paper such as draft documents, he found a copy of a document next to one of those burn bags, but not in it. Rather, it was caught between the burn bag and a senior staffer’s desk. Our contact quietly put those sheets of paper in his backpack to take home (wrapped around an uneaten roast beef sandwich) in order to save this document for history and historians. It appears to have been a draft message intended for the president to read on Tuesday, instead of the near-incoherent rant he ultimately delivered. Our contact quietly scanned it, and then forwarded it to us electronically – and so we repeat it below, in full, for Daily Maverick readers:
I had planned today to speak to you about our plans for a vast infrastructure investment for our country and I have brought several advisers and cabinet members with me to discuss these plans in more depth. But first I believe it is important for me to speak in more depth about the sad events in Charlottesville over the weekend.
In case anyone has any confusion on the matter, I want to make it absolutely clear – CLEAR – that our government, my administration, and I – personally – have no, none, not one iota of sympathy for, agreement with, or appreciation of white racism, ultra-white nationalism, neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan, or any other group that espouses hate, hate crimes, or racial, ethnic, or religious segregation. The very basics of our national creed speak volumes about the fundamental equality of all Americans and their unalienable rights. Thomas Jefferson, president, philosopher – and co-founder of the University of Virginia – set out this very principle in a famous document written over two hundred years ago, and that declaration has been like a light unto all nations ever since, even if America has not always lived up fully to its aspirations.
Yes, it is true that people and groups who disagree with such fundamental American views do have a right to speak their minds – it is a critically important right under our Constitution. But all of us need to make it totally clear to such people that such appalling opinions have NO place in our republic, our society, and our souls. No place. And they cannot expect they will not be challenged by right-thinking citizens everywhere.
I want to pause here to express the heartfelt feelings of sympathies of all Americans to the families of those who were injured during that demonstration. They did not deserve to be harmed in the exercise of their right of free speech. And most especially, I want to offer Melania and my deepest sympathies to the family, friends, and colleagues of Heather Heyer. From what I have learned, she was a model of what an engaged, active, concerned citizen and person does to make her world a better place for all.
Yes, I understand that some Americans have strong feelings about the controversies that can surround monuments, statues and flags that reflect problematic people and issues in our history. We need to take hold of this issue as a nation, and so I am asking the head of the National Archives and Records Administration to convene a conference and commission studies, in association with leading historians and thinkers, to begin setting out thoughtful guidance and recommendations about how we can appropriately remember such problematic events and people.
Finally, I want to reveal a bit more of my personal life than I might ordinarily do in such a public forum. As most of you know, my daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared, are of the Jewish faith, and their children – my grandchildren – are naturally being raised in that same faith. I love them all very deeply. But, over the past few days, I have thought about how these events may touch these deeply beloved members of my family. As you can easily imagine, I also worry they too may be harmed or emotionally scarred by the kinds of odious words, gestures – and even deeds – we all witnessed on television, coming from the neo-Nazis and others.
And so, if any of my words may have given any succour or encouragement to extremist groups, I want to say that everyone should be totally clear that has never been my intention or purpose. We can disagree about our policies and programmes. We can argue about what our institutions can or cannot do. But we must all agree we live in a nation that takes its commitments to equality, freedom, and justice seriously.
Attached to the document was a post-it note, with the initials JK [presumably Chief of Staff John Kelly] on it. There were several brief bullet points on it to remind Trump of what he was going to do:
- There were no “nice people” marching with white supremacists.
- The protesters and anti-protesters were NOT equivalent.
- Stay on message and don’t pick fights with reporters.Sadly, this message ended up being ignored on Tuesday and the world witnessed the result. We all watched a US president carry out an epic meltdown, live, and, in the process, forfeit any remaining claim to moral leadership in the world. That was the final casualty of an awful weekend in the Virginia summer next to the campus of a renowned university. DM
Photo: Protesters chant outside of Trump Towers in New York, New York, USA, 14 August 2017. US President Donald J. Trump will make his first overnight trip back to New York since becoming president. EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT.