Donald Trump is permanently damaging his presidency by equating Nazis with counterdemonstrators. There is currently an acute moral vacuum in the White House.
They arrived with torches, weapons, and hate symbols. They were marching and shouting: “Jews will not replace us. Jews will not replace us. Blood and soil. Blood and soil.”
It was just over a week ago. It was Friday night in the American city of Charlottesville, dark enough for the burning torches – a chilling fire from history – to be seen from far away.
It had been known in advance that Nazis, white supremacists, and Ku Klux Klan supporters were going to gather there. The reason given was to protest the decision to remove the statue of the deeply controversial Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. However, neither before, nor after the rally, was there ever any doubt about the real objective: To spread racism and fear. To shout out their hatred against those of the “wrong race.”
This is also why a large group of people had gathered to organize peaceful counterdemonstrations. The group was made up of a wide spectrum of society including students, religious leaders, traveling activists, residents and even some people dressed in black.
On Saturday, the day after the extremely disturbing rally at the university campus, the tension escalated. Some of the right-wing extremists resembled paramilitary groups, heavily armed and dressed in uniforms.
Just before lunch time, a car at high speed was driven into the crowd, aiming straight for the counterdemonstrators. People were literally thrown into the air. The activist Heather Heyer, 32, was killed. Later that same day there was another tragedy when a police helicopter that was overseeing the demonstrations crashed. Two police officers were killed in the crash.
Terry McAuliffe, governor of Virginia, did not mince his words when talking about the white supremacists who had come to Charlottesville. “There is no place for you here,” he said. “There is no place for you in America. Shame on you. You pretend that you are patriots, but you are anything but a patriot,” he continued.
It would have been just as obvious a task as it would have been simple for Donald Trump to condemn the right-wing extremists in a clear and powerful statement. Political leaders have a specific role to play in a national crisis, when people are in a state of shock and sorrow. Perhaps this is particularly true in the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, a country that was almost torn apart in a civil war largely stemming from different views of slavery.
“The American presidency is primarily a place for moral leadership,” Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who engaged in war with Nazi Germany, once said.
Trump was clearly not interested. On Twitter, where he normally uses his full fire power against opponents, the media and terrorists, he first chose to be silent. When he finally made a statement, Trump condemned the violence “on both sides.”
Only a person who completely ignores the context, the extreme right-wing setting, the open racism and anti-Semitism can arrive at such a conclusion.
After massive criticism, Trump completed his statement by reading prepared remarks condemning the Nazis. However, on Tuesday the American president was back where he began. The extremely upsetting tweet which included the “both sides” statement was no coincidence.
In a by now historic press conference at Trump Tower, where the plan was to focus on infrastructure investment, several things became clear.
First, Trump once again demeaned those who peacefully protested the Nazi march, by equating the right-wing extremists with the counterdemonstrators. The murder of Heather Heyer which he did not want to classify as “terror,” stood in sharp contrast with his quick, clear and reasonable condemnation of the barbary in Barcelona a couple of days before.
Second, Trump showed his total disinterest in moral leadership, abdicating from the role American presidents normally try to play: Setting standards, acting as role models and drawing the line between right and wrong.
Not even the fact that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the infamous right-wing extremist Richard Spencer expressed their gratitude to Donald Trump got Trump to react. Rather the opposite. For the president, the logic is the reverse: Those who praise Trump are always right; it is those who are critical who are morally in the wrong.
The events of the last week are very serious, carrying the risk that right-wing extremists all over the Western world will gain momentum from Trump’s terrible statements. In Sweden, Nazis are already trying to disrupt important events. We are likely to see more of such tactics if the police fail to understand the seriousness of the situation, and move the rallies away from the centers where they are going to cause the most disruption.
Right-wing extremists try to make their presence and existence part of the norm, ideally spilling over onto more traditional groups. This is where conservative parties play an important role in clearly marking the line to their right. Those looking for inspiration can benefit from studying the German chancellor Angela Merkel. She knows, through her own experience, how dangerous political extremists are on both the left and the right.
As for Trump, no one who is familiar with his short time in politics can be surprised. This is nothing new. This is the same Trump who used the right-wing extremists as a campaign tool. To add further evidence, Trump this week sent a toxic email to journalists and lawyers in Washington where, among other things, the counterdemonstrators were advised to “return to the ghetto.”*
Tellingly, Trump did not take part in the memorial for the murdered activist Heather Heyer, who was known for fighting injustice. Her mother, on the other hand, did attend and spoke. She encouraged people to continue her daughter’s fight, listen to their heart, and do every little thing possible to make the world a better place. She gave a reminder of what her daughter had written on Facebook: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Trump will never be able to rid his presidency of the shame and dishonor.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted phrase could not be independently verified.