If you want to know why Donal Trump blamed a neo-Nazi attack on “many sides,” you only have to go back a single week.
Last Saturday someone threw a bomb through the window of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. Thankfully, no one was injured. The FBI is investigating. The governor of Minnesota called it an act of terrorism. Senator Franken said it was “an attack on all of us.” Like Americans generally do after such acts of wanton violence, the surrounding community rallied in support of those attacked, refusing to allow fringe hatred to destroy the communal strength of peace and freedom.
The president? Crickets.
Why? Oh, the White House had an inspiring answer. He was waiting for details, worried that it might have been a hoax perpetrated by the left.
Now yes, all the facts aren’t in (though swastikas and hateful graffiti had littered a Muslim cemetery a week before, and Minnesota has already seen a record number of anti-Muslim crimes this year). But the facts that are in speak loudly. Primarily, there is the evidence that Sebastian Gorka used to justify this supposed concern: that the left has been proven to be pursuing a widespread propaganda campaign that seeks to paint good, honest Americans as bigots by exaggerating the prevalence of hate crimes, all in the interests of riding identity politics to power. This is, of course, a giant pile of ignorant bull shit, gleaned from a fringe of conspiracy theorists and nationalists, only strengthened by the idea that the “mainstream media” is ignoring it not because it’s bull shit– not even because said MSM is subject to a pervasive liberal bias– but because the media is parcel to the propaganda effort itself. Never mind that just 1% of the hate crimes reported since the election have been false reports, much less attributed to false flags. In such a world view, the truth is never externally produced. Just look at Sandy Hook.
As a result of the attack, I’ve been thinking this past week about the moment in my travels when I met a woman who makes a weekly pilgrimage to the memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing. She expressed to me her concern that Americans had forgotten the bombing in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and even suggested that many people might believe it was Islamic terrorists who perpetrated that attack. I pushed back on that latest notion, but the essential sentiment of it resonates with me still. It wasn’t that she was dismissing the threat of Islamic terrorism. It wasn’t that she was a deluded liberal (on the contrary, other things she said to me suggested that she was in fact in line politically with the vast majority of her state). It was that the expansive origins of hatred and violence had come home to her, and she was committed to keeping alive that very understanding, lest we as a nation devolve towards a myopic world view that forgets just what is under attack.
The Trump administration is counting on this myopia, meaning to peddle themselves to a group of people who would rather imagine that we as a people can identify our enemies simply by looking at them than recognize the complicated influences of hate. These are people who don’t want to hear about terrorist acts against Muslims. These are people who are receptive to the idea that Hispanics are rapists and murderers and Central American refugees are all members of MS-13. These are people who want to believe that an activist organization advocating for the fair treatment of blacks is a hate group out to destroy the white race, and who cheer when the president says that the police should rough up suspects because they’re not suspects but thugs.
And they’re not just his base. They’re his America.
Since the election I have criticized those who say that Trump is not their president. Democracy, after all, said otherwise (at least in the manner in which it is organized in this country), and I thought that it was a mistake to let Trump off the hook in this regard. He works for us, and not the other way around, I argued. Remind him of this. Demand that he do his job.
But after this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, it is clear to me that such a perspective is naive, precisely because Trump isn’t concerned with being the president of the American people. He’s only interested in being the president of the people who put him in office. While the rest of us would be appalled by the sight of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other assorted bigots wearing clothes and carrying signs bearing the slogans that identify us (as many of them were with MAGA gear and the like), Trump sees it as validation of his appeal and a reminder of who buttresses his power. And so when violence erupts, it can’t be those people who are at fault– at least not as a group. In the least, he can’t denounce them by name (or if he does, he needs to be careful to do so with a wink they can clearly identify), because alienating them entails the possibility that their support of him might erode. So a white supremacist plowing into a crowd is the fault of many sides (read: liberal agitators). So the bombing of a mosque can’t be denounced (those who support such violence can’t be alienated, after all, and those who don’t need to validated in their belief that it isn’t part of their political caucus that did it). There is a narrative that has Donald Trump in the Oval Office, and as any television evangelist can tell you, undermining the mythology is the quickest way to get yourself taken off the air.
We have reached the point, accordingly, where the only people who can believe that Donald Trump’s presidency is good for America are those who identify with the “Unite the Right” crowd in Charlottesville or those who are willing to sacrifice the uptick in their cultural influence in the name of other issues they deem to be more important (the chemotherapy crowd, if you will). Because this isn’t going to get better. This weekend’s events, and the executive response that followed them, is only going to embolden the already emboldened. Whereas a year ago a few-dozen neo-Nazis barbecuing in a public park was headline news, now we have thousands showing up with guns and bully sticks on the campus of a distinguished university. We have people who don’t see a problem with flying the Confederate flag alongside the Nazi flag (on the contrary, a swastika is now seen as a means for political unity!), no longer resigned to pretending that it only represents “heritage” and “history.” And we have a president who is mildly annoyed that he had to come off the golf course to make an announcement about it all, and at best has zero interest in doing anything to actually pull us back out of the dark decades of injustice that his backwards agenda has returned us to.
Now, more than ever, we need to fight for the progressive values of our country– that “more perfect union” that Lincoln suggested hallowed the grounds of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, that land of promise that turned Irish and Italian and German immigrants from the vilified refuse of unsavory lands into noble participants in the American experiment, that ever-evolving beacon of freedom that sent its people to die in Europe twice inside 30 years, that mountaintop that Civil Rights activists looked upon as they put themselves in harm’s way for an ideal. It’s up to us. Because that America is of no interest to the man elected to lead it.