Leading From Behind on the Alt-Right

At this writing, early afternoon on Monday, word at last came from the White House that President Trump had personally condemned white supremacists, calling their views “evil.”

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Alt-right "Free Speech" rally at the Lincoln Memorial June 25. Photo by Jeff Malet.

President Donald Trump had a moment Saturday. He didn’t take it until Monday.

At this writing, early afternoon on Monday, word at last came from the White House that President Trump had personally condemned white supremacists, calling their views “evil.”

“Racism is evil,” he said. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

There have been many times during Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and since when he has been praised for appearing, seeming to be or actually being presidential. “The moment that Donald Trump truly became president” has been announced a number of times by members of the media and by his staff and supporters — notably after the State of the Union address — though whether or not he quite rose to that level was and is debatable.

Still, Saturday, Aug. 12, was such an opportunity, and a much needed one for the country, for the American people, for those still hopeful that he had a reservoir or reservoirs hitherto untapped of empathy, inspiration, a sense of the moment and occasion that are part of the job description of being President of the United States.

It was a dreadful, tragic and shocking day in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia, in which “Unite the Right,” a coalition of alt-right, white supremacists (including members of the Ku Klux Klan) and neo-Nazis, demonstrated against tearing down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park).

Soon enough, the demonstrators clashed in pitched, violent battles with anti-demonstrators, the groups physically tangling with one other. During the fighting, a driver aimed his car into a crowd of anti-demonstrators. As a result, a woman identified as Heather Heyer, 32, was killed. Nineteen others were injured.

The driver was identified as James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old Ohio man who allegedly sympathized with Nazi views.

Two police officers flying a helicopter overhead were also killed in a crash nearby.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe scathingly blasted the white supremacist groups that sparked the events. Members had also marched illegally the night before, shouting out epithets against African Americans, Jews and gays.

This was the moment that President Trump faced, and his response, beyond the tragedy and horrific events themselves, was the most hotly debated topic in America yesterday and this morning.

Here’s the short version which enraged and puzzled many people, Republicans and Democrats, supporters and opponents alike: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society. And no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play or be with their parents and have a good time.”

There was more, although not much more, including some almost obligatory bragging about how well the country was doing under him, the “terrific work of police,” about “straightening out the situation in Charlottesville and we want to study it” and how “we must love each other and cherish our history and our future together. So important. We have to respect each other. Ideally we have to love each other.”

The key phrase for many Americans was “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry on many sides, on many sides.” More than that, the president failed to condemn specifically and strongly in any terms the white supremacist, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan demonstrators and name them.

By noon on Monday, President Trump himself had still not named the white supremacists, although the “White House” and spokespersons insisted that by attacking violence and bigotry, everybody understood what he meant. Senators McCain, Cruz, Rubio and Graham urged him to do so, and his daughter Ivanka actually did, along with other spokespersons. Vice President Pence also used the phrase.

Yet, there was something about the whole statement, given in a rushed manner, it seemed, at President Trump’s signing of the Veterans Affairs Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

The president did not fulfill the idea that it was his job in this time and situation to soothe and calm, as well as to condemn and more importantly to lead. His tone was quiet, almost hushed, but there were no large, broad gestures typical of a Trump speech. It was a speech marked neither by anger or passion, it had no wings, no sense of the tragedy at hand, but was awkwardly moved forward by platitudes. It was a far cry from the almost apocalyptic “fire and fury” and burst of threats against North Korea.

Asked about the white supremacist issue, he brushed it away and walked off.

By Monday, he did manage to work up some anger in a tweet about a President’s Manufacturing Council member who had quit over his handling of the issue.

He might, could have and perhaps should have acknowledged that these groups were slithering out of the dark into what they think is the sunlight of the president’s support. And they do form at least a part of Trump’s base of support. Former KKK head David Duke acknowledged as much when he said, “we voted for him.” Other white supremacists were pleased with his initial statement because it did not blame them.

Trump had a moment on Saturday, when it would have done the most good for everybody.

He finally found it Monday.

Among many things you can say about the Monday statement, it is a classic example of leading from behind.

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