Moral Vacuum

Trump does away with the most basic ethics in his belated condemnation of racism

Of all the harm that Donald Trump is inflicting on the American presidency, the worst blows are the moral ones. And when one considers the thuggery that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, the indifference of Ronald Reagan during the AIDS epidemic, or the sexual entanglements of Bill Clinton, that’s saying something. There is simply nothing in a century that can compare to the current American president’s reluctance to call racist terrorism by its name in the aftermath of a neo-Nazi mob going on a march 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the nation’s capital, armed to the teeth and causing three deaths.

After the bloodbath, everyone, even hard-liners like Sen. Ted Cruz quickly condemned the spate of domestic terrorism, which will be investigated by the Justice Department. Everyone except Trump, who first said on Twitter that the events were “sad,” and later, in a brief appearance, decried the “violence on many sides,” equating victims with their attackers. Finally, 48 hours later, his aides dragged him in front of the cameras to issue a condemnation. He read a brief statement in which he said, “Racism is evil,” then left without taking questions or showing any emotion.

This episode highlights, like none other, the huge gap between Trump and all his predecessors. Before, his harmony with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his outlandish fight with the North Korean regime could be interpreted as mere theatrics. But now, the fact is that the very president of the United States has refused to quickly and forcefully speak out against murders committed by a neo-Nazi group.

In the past, presidents have used serious moments like this one to rise above political divisions and play a conciliatory role, appealing to the genuine optimism of American democracy. This is, for example, what Barack Obama did during the 2014 protests over the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, protests which were about to set the country’s biggest cities on fire. But Trump is the opposite of conciliatory. The role he’s chosen is one of rebelliousness and provocation, two qualities that allowed him to win last year’s elections against all odds. Qualities that he believes entitle him to flout all social norms, even moral ones.

His lukewarm response to Charlottesville is due to the fact that he doesn’t disapprove of groups of white men protesting how the government has spent decades investing in programs to end social and economic inequality for black and Hispanic minorities. For Trump, such protests aren’t racism, but rather freedom of expression; and their message is politically incorrect but worthy of being heard. In his inauguration speech, he spoke of “carnage,” in fact. He knew what he was saying, or whom he was talking to. Trump’s most faithful supporters are the ones who were delighted when, in 2012, he questioned whether Obama, the first African-American president, had been born in the United States. That’s how Trump’s campaign was born, and that’s how he hijacked the Republican primaries. The big question now is how long it will take for 60 million traditional Republicans to realize this. That’s the number of traditional Republicans who voted for Trump, and if Trump doesn’t actively practice racism, he seems dangerously tolerant of it.

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