President Trump got it right in his initial response to the mayhem in Charlottesville when he condemned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
His subsequent remarks on Monday, singling out “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups” was also appropriate. Those people are repulsive; they represent the ugliest strain in our history. The fact that one of them apparently committed an act of domestic terror by driving his car down a crowded street, killing one woman and injuring 19 others, demanded a specific response.
But if we insist on viewing Saturday’s events as an alt-right convulsion, we are refusing to see how it reflects the deep and frightening divisions percolating in our country.
Unlike most of the violent protests of the past few years – where left-wing demonstrators have repeatedly clashed with the police – Charlottesville pitted two extreme and marginal groups of citizens against one another: self-proclaimed anti-fascists versus thuggish haters. The result was as predictable; why law enforcement did so little to prevent the violence remains a mystery.
The white supremacists, most of whom were carrying sticks and shields, were largely to blame for the violence. But it is also clear that many of the “anti-fascists” were itching for yet another fight. That’s been true at least since the presidential campaign, when they engaged in violence at Trump rallies.
One of our country’s great strengths is that even the hatemongers who held a torch-lit rally to oppose the razing of a statue in Charlottesville honoring Robert E. Lee must be allowed to march in peace. Everyone has a right to voice hateful views – including the anti-Semitic slogans these reptiles chanted.
Increasingly, however, swarms of “counter-protestors” are descending on gatherings of citizens they oppose, resulting in violence. That is un-American.
Given this wider context, Trump would have been doing the country a disservice if he singled out one group for blame. He would have been suggesting that it is acceptable to meet those who hold objectionable views with violence. He would have been denying the complex, toxic anger coursing through our body politic.
His initial call for unity, however, was immediately transformed into a cudgel by his opponents – on the left and in his own party – who accused him (once again) of racism because he failed to single out the white supremacists marchers.
Never mind trying to figure out what had happened.
Never mind that the number of Klansmen and neo-Nazis in our nation of 320 million is minute – that no one with any credibility supports them and that they are not why Trump won.
Never mind that our nation has never been so open and free.
They smelled blood.
The idea was simple: Advance the false and ugly narrative that the President who received more than 60 million votes is in league with these troglodytes. A narrative, by the way, that is as false and ugly as the idea that Trump is a Russian agent.
If he didn’t single them out, well, he must agree with them. And so must his supporters.
Racists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their sympathizers – is that really how they see our President and tens of millions of their fellow Americans? If so, how did they develop such a dark, contemptuous view?
Putting those disturbing questions aside, the tragedy was instantly politicized. For Never Trump Republicans, it was an easy way to weaken him while appearing virtuous.
For the left, the violence was just another effort to smear and delegitimize him. If you doubt this, consider how quickly they turned this human tragedy – one that cost a young woman her life – into a vehicle for attacking Trump.
Consider how the same people who demand he denounce white supremacists are silent in the face of repeated violence by “anti-fascists.”
Is it any wonder that Washington can’t even address, much less fix, our nation’s problems?
The violence in Charlottesville would be troubling enough if it was just the work of rebarbative white supremacists. Seen in the context of a string of campus demonstrations and violent protests, the assassination of police officers, the attempted murder of members of Congress and the vicious online threats against those who hold views some don’t like, it should serve as a wake-up call to all people of good will.
We must recognize that our politics, which has long dominated by ugly rhetoric, is being taken over by violent action on many sides.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.