Failure to condemn is failure of leadership
US President Donald Trump’s reticence in criticising the murderous actions of extreme right-wing groups in the Virginia protests is a failure of leadership
If US President Donald Trump thought he could remain above the fray of the far-right nationalist sentiment that his divisive populist rhetoric emboldened, he could not have been more misguided or badly advised. His equivocal response to the ugly violence in Virginia between nationalists and counter-protesters is seen by white supremacists as implicit support. It was a missed opportunity to provide strong moral leadership from the White House. Neo-Nazis have no doubt about it, judging by a crowing account of the president’s statement in the white supremacist website the Daily Stormer – “He didn’t attack us ... no condemnation at all …when asked to condemn he just walked out of the room ... really, really good, God bless him.”
Trump rightly upheld law and order and rejected hatred, but just three words brought bipartisan wrath and repudiation on his head. “We condemn in the strongest terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence that’s on many sides, on many sides,” he said.
The repetition of the last three words implies no moral distinction between white-supremacist nationalists and counter-protesters. The former were protesting at the removal of a Confederate memorial from a public park in Charlottesville. Some wore combat gear and carried assault weapons, after having gathered in the grounds of the University of Virginia the previous night carrying torches and chanting Nazi slogans. The counter-protesters gathered to show their objection. Violent clashes cost at least one life, that of a young woman counter-protester run down by a car driven into the crowd, and also left 19 injured. Police have charged the driver with murder.
White House officials tried to clarify Trump’s comments, amid bipartisan demands that he take a stronger stand. But it was by email and not Twitter, Trump’s favourite medium. It said Trump’s condemnation included white supremacists and all extremist groups.
Racist supremacy, and failure of leadership to articulate moral repudiation, is a denial of the melting pot of immigration and cultures at the foundations of America’s greatness. Trump has squandered an opportunity to make a strong statement that empathises with mainstream values and could provide an embattled White House with the chance to make a fresh start.
Trump’s populist election campaign rhetoric, with its talk of Americans taking their country back and building walls against migrants, has encouraged bigotry and hatred. Evidence of that is the comment of former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard David Duke: “We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.” The US knows well the contagion of rioting against racial discrimination and policing. Equivocation in the face of white supremacist bigotry leaves the door open to a backlash.