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OUR VIEWS

No moral authority if president a white supremacist

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

It’s been a long time, more than a hundred years probably, since an out-and-proud white supremacist occupied the White House as president. Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, Woodrow Wilson, were likely the last presidents to say publicly, without fear of rebuke, that white people are superior to people of other races.

Many of their successors likely held similar views, but refrained from stating them publicly. We know about Lyndon Johnson’s remarks about African Americans and Richard Nixon’s comments about both African Americans and Jews only because of the presidential taping system — they thought would remain secret — that recorded their words for posterity.

In President Donald Trump, we now have someone in the White House who, while not publicly stating a belief that white people are superior, has conducted himself in word and deed that can only lead us to the conclusion that he believes it. 

Trump’s belief in white supremacy in fact was in plain view for everyone to see long before he ran for president. Trump’s claim that Barack Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and therefore ineligible to be president, was based on his belief in white supremacy. Trump’s “birther” claim, which he finally, and grudgingly, was forced to disavow during his presidential campaign, arose from the racist view that a black man shouldn’t occupy the office of president, even if he was elected to it.

During his campaign for president, Trump always seemed reluctant to denounce white nationalists or other racist groups and individuals. He seemed to relish their support, retweeting accounts and memes with ties to white supremacist groups. He also waited late into the campaign to disavow David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard — and even then, he did so grudgingly and after several failed attempts to state a clear position on one of the most visible racists in the country.

So no one should be surprised by Trump’s inability to draw a bright moral line between those who advocate for white supremacy and those who find the idea anathema to American ideals and values. Nor should anyone be surprised about the president’s apparent sympathy for the white supremacists — “good people,” he calls them — whose rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend sparked street violence and led to the death of one person protesting the rally, Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist in an act of domestic terrorism.

The only thing surprising about Trump’s reaction to the violence and Heyer’s death was his second attempt at a response. In it, delivered through prepared remarks that he read two days after Heyer’s death, Trump said he condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who take part in violence, describing them as “criminals and thugs” and declaring their actions “repugnant to everything that we hold dear as Americans.” Trump added, “racism is evil.”

Granted, none of what Trump said seemed to come from the heart. In his remarks, he first recited his accomplishments on the economy, trade and jobs. He also only seemed to discuss Heyer’s death and the racist-inspired violence that caused it as an afterthought, doing so while giving an update on the Justice Department’s civil rights investigation of the violence.

Subsequent reporting by news outlets backed up the suspicion that Trump’s second set of remarks on the Charlotte violence had been forced, and only delivered under duress after his top aides expressed concern that his first statement, delivered hours after Heyer’s death, wasn’t forceful enough in drawing a clear distinction between the white supremacists and those who were protesting them. In his first response, Trump condemned the violence in Charlottesville that he said had been caused by “many sides.”

Despite all his insincerity, Trump’s second response to the Charlottesville violence contained the kind of things a president is supposed to say if he intends to bring the nation together in a moment of crisis and lead it forward from a position of moral authority.

However, President Trump isn’t good at being insincere — at least not when it comes to his true feelings about race. The very next day after delivering his do-over remarks on the Charlottesville violence, Trump reversed himself during a press conference at Trump Tower. He defiantly blamed “both sides” for the violence that led to Heyer’s death, again failing to draw a bright line between those who support white supremacy and those who believe it to be an inherent evil. Trump at one point even seemed to sympathize with the plight of the white supremacists, KKK members and neo-Nazis, describing how they were faced on Charlotte’s streets by opponents who “came charging, with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs.”

But Trump went even further, calling some of those who were in Charlottesville for the “United the Right” rally “very fine people.” Those “very fine people” Trump embraced marched on the University of Virginia campus the night before Saturday’s rally, carrying torches and chanting slogans like “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” a key slogan of Nazi ideology. As one GOP commentator said later of Trump’s remarks, “There are no good people at a white supremacist rally.”  

Trump also embraced white supremacists’ chief fear: that their once-dominant “culture” is being supplanted. He expressed support for those seeking to keep the monuments erected to celebrate the Confederacy, saying those who oppose the monuments are “changing history” and “changing culture.” 

In the wake of those comments, many Americans who voted for Trump, including a number of Republican lawmakers, have suggested Trump’s moral authority to lead the country has been compromised. But you can’t compromise something you’ve never had. Donald Trump entered the presidency without the moral authority to lead this country and from all appearances, doesn’t believe he needs it. As long as Trump has the support of Americans who, too, believe their race is superior to others, he believes he’ll be fine.

Fortunately, the number of people who believe that racist hogwash is smaller than Trump believes. While it’s still a bigger number than any American should feel comfortable with, it is growing smaller each and every day Donald Trump remains president.

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