What makes American democracy shine is not the absence of hate but the response. Repugnant ideas have always swirled in this country amid the legitimate: Racism, anti-Semitism and crackpot nationalism exist. Such ugliness is not outlawed. It is protected by the Constitution. It also is marginalized and rejected by the nation at large because discriminatory ideologies are empty of worth. Most everyone can see that.
And yet there was the disgraceful spectacle in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend: A ragtag group of hatemongers — neo-Nazis, Klan members and other rightists among them — showed up to strut their vapid values. They came to make noise and make asses of themselves, while ostensibly protesting the planned removal of a Confederate statue. Counterprotesters were on the scene to meet speech with speech. Here was democracy in action. It was certain to be a tense scene but still, this was our country for the better because even Nazis have the right to march. As do those who think Nazis are vile.
Virginia officials braced for trouble, and unfortunately it arrived. The two sides clashed, leading Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency. After police and the National Guard moved in to disperse the crowds, a car rammed into the crowd, killing one person and injuring dozens. Soon after, a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed in the vicinity, killing two. The driver of the car was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
The loss of life and the many injuries are tragic and regrettable. Violence is not an acceptable price to pay for expression. The First Amendment guarantees the right to peaceable assembly, and so the violence shouldn’t have happened in Charlottesville. Anyone who was responsible, on either side, committed a wrong.
Perhaps this is what President Donald Trump was fumbling to express in the hours after the rioting when he said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Trump had more to say in the first hours after the incidents, including a plea for understanding. But conspicuous through its absence was a direct, immediate condemnation of the ideology of hate on display.
It wouldn’t have been hard for the president to find the right words to name-check and reject the nasties. Virginia’s governor, even while dealing with catastrophe, immediately struck the right tone in his message to the “white supremacists and Nazis” who came to Charlottesville. “Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth,” he told them. “Shame on you. You pretend that you’re patriots, but you are anything but a patriot. You want to talk about a patriot, talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who brought our country together.”
Trump can’t be blamed for the rioting in Virginia. But the haters and stooges of white nationalism see something in the president that gives them permission to act out. Trump is no oratory giant. He’s a sloppy speaker whose nasty streak on the campaign trail acted as a dog whistle to the ugly right. Whether by design or carelessness, Trump avoided calling out the haters by name Saturday. That omission hurts. A recovery effort Sunday by the White House to assert that “of course” Trump was referring to white supremacists and all extremist groups came up woefully short.
He got one thing right, though, by saying Saturday’s tragedy should be seen as a starting point for reflection. “We want to get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville, and we want to study it,” he said. “And we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country, where things like this can happen.”
Those words need to be taken to heart by the president. He’s got some studying to do about the consequence of language, and how to speak like a leader who wants to unite the country.
America does have a problem with racism, with anti-Semitism and many other forms of bigotry and intolerance. That’s no secret. The question Americans must confront every day is how will they respond.