Bilateral Commentary

Charlottesville: The Abdication of Moral Authority

Author:  Dr. Anthony Bryson

Virginia has been the focal point for many important moments in American history.  Many of our founding fathers were born of held residence in that state.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason all called Virginia their home.  Virginia was the site of many battles during the Revolutionary and Civil wars.  In fact, Virginia was central to the Confederacy and the outcomes of the civil war.  Richmond was capital of the Confederate States.  Robert E. Lee, the General who led the Confederate forces, was from Virginia.  It was at the Court House in Appomattox where the Confederacy surrendered to the Union, ending the Civil War.  Sadly, because of events from this past weekend, Virginia will again go down in American history, but for all the wrong reasons. 

A “Unite the Right” rally was scheduled for Saturday, August 12th, 2017 on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and was to be a public display of unison for those on the fringe right of the American political spectrum.  This was to be a national gathering of fixtures from the alt-right, including White Nationalists and Neo-Nazis.  The intent of the rally was to counter the plans for the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from the grounds of the University.  Information of the rally had leaked out and a protest was planned for Saturday to counter the display of the alt-right.

Unbeknownst to the counter protesters, the alt-right held a Friday night torch light march across campus, which drew national attention.  The marchers, many wearing white polos and khaki pants to emulate Donald Trump’s weekend golf attire, carried Tiki torches and chanted pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic slogans while being directed by organizers with bullhorns.  Chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil,” a homage to the Nazi reference of blut und boden (a reference to the purity of the peasant stock), the marchers made their way across campus to the Robert E. Lee statue where they held a photo-op.  The coverage of this event would only add fuel to a fire that was building toward the next day.

The local Police saw trouble brewing and the Saturday rally was moved away from the original site at Emancipation Park.  This created a level of mayhem and moved much of the protest to the streets.  The alt-right contingent arrived prepared for war, many wearing helmets and brandishing both shields and clubs.  Many of the alt-right protesters also carried pistols and assault weapons.  The counter protesters showed up less prepared.  Some came with shields, similar to the alt-right, but the vast majority of the counter protesters were there to do nothing more than march and provide numbers to dwarf those at the rally.  According to those on the ground who witnessed events, there was a small contingent of a few dozen antifa anarchists present, but their numbers were dwarfed by bot the alt-right demonstrators and those protesting the White Nationalist presence.  The powder keg situation was tense and the two groups ultimately clashed, resulting in violent engagements from both sides.  Things spun out of control quickly and resulted in James Alex Fields Jr. driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others.  This was a tragic day for America, but things would only get worse in the days to follow.

These events created a moment of national outrage.  There is no doubt who started and who ended the violence in Charlottesville, because it was all being recorded.  Vice News was filming a documentary report about the events, so they had coverage of all the goings-on, from the perspective of the alt-right White Nationalists.  The events were not in doubt when you hear directly from those involved, openly bragging that they were prepared for violence and kill if necessary.  This footage was as damning as could be, and it should have been the end of any debate over responsibility.  But that didn’t stop someone in a position of ultimate authority to make this an even larger spectacle than it was.

Enter Donald Trump.  At a moment of national crisis the nation turns its eyes to the White House for some reason and calming words.  But this is the Donald Trump administration, and nothing goes according to plan or political norms.  Instead of immediately commenting on and condemning the events as they were unfolding, Trump waited two days to make an official comment, one where he did not mention the alt-right or White Nationalists.  After much criticism, Mr. Trump was forced to make a statement via video where he was finally critical of the alt-right groups, specifically naming the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis.  Much criticism rained down on this statement, but not as a result of content, but because of the time it took for him to call out the perpetrators of the violence.  The sitting President claimed he took time to get it right, and congratulated himself for his statement that he claims he got right.  But did he?

Come Tuesday, Mr. Trump was scheduled to make a brief statement at Trump Tower in New York about his proposed trillion dollar infrastructure improvement program.  This was to be a quick statement, and then he would withdraw to allow his flunkies to deal with questions on the initiative.  But Trump being Trump, couldn’t keep his ego in check and he readily engaged the media in an unscheduled question period.  Trump went completely off the rails, placing the blame more so on the “alt-left” (a made up term which is not representative of any group) than those who had been tapped engaging in violence.  He almost admonished the alt-right of any guilt, and laid it at the feet of those protesting the White Nationalists and Nazis.  Trump went so far as to say there were good people on the alt-right side who were only there to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue.  He also claimed that he knew more and had a better view on these events than anyone else, because Donald Trump is Donald Trump, and everything he does or touches is better than anything or anyone else.  Even in this particular instance, where eye witnesses tell a completely different story, and a documentary showing just to opposite, Trump was the ultimate authority on what happened in Charlottesville.

As bizarre and unhinged as the press conference was there was one moment where Trump booked a first class coach on the crazy train.  At one point he attempted to defend Confederate monuments by comparing them to monuments to the founding fathers.  Trump suggested that removal of the Robert E. Lee monument would certainly lead to the removal of statues of Washington or Jefferson, because they owned slaves.  This was a leap of logic that was even incredibly huge for Donald Trump, but he went there.

When Donald Trump talks about Confederate monuments and equates them to the monuments erected to the founding fathers, he again displays his woeful ignorance.  There is a massive difference between the two series of monuments.  The founding fathers fought for freedom from oppression.  They fought for a creation of a society where all men would have equal footing.  Did they have everything right, especially on slavery?  Hell no, but they fought a battle against oppression and charted us on the road to a society where we would ultimately achieve equality, regardless if race, gender identification, or sexual orientation.  It would take a couple hundred years for many of these rights to evolve, but because of the work of the founding fathers we would have the structures in place which would allow us all to get there. 

Conversely, the Confederacy fought a different battle.  The Confederacy fought for the oppression and subjugation of an entire race, suggesting that one was inferior to another.  People were willing to die so one race could own another.  Their battle was not about freedom, it was about the right to subjugate others and establish that one race was superior to all others.  The founding fathers were enlightenment thinkers and drafted constructs that would allow us to achieve freedom and liberty.  Those behind the Confederacy were counter to everything those enlightenment thinkers had fought for, everything the United States was founded on.  The contrast is so obvious it should not need to be explained, yet it appears the sitting President of the country those enlightenment thinkers founded requires a full explanation.

The monuments to the Confederacy are not about culture or Southern pride.  They are monuments to our worst character.  They are examples of what can happen when we allow ourselves to believe we are superior to others and willing to put ourselves above others simply because of what we believe ourselves to be.  They are monuments to our willingness to oppress others, and to destroy what is right and just, just to be right.

The monuments to the founding fathers are just the opposite.  They are monuments against oppression and statements about our freedoms and our liberty.  They monuments to the greater things we can do when we put others before ourselves.  They are monuments to high minded ideals that all men are created equal and that when we do the right thing, we can achieve greatness. 

The events at Charlottesville were tragic, but nowhere near as tragic as those we witnessed Tuesday afternoon at Trump Tower.  At Charlottesville we sadly watched as a young woman lost her life, fighting against those who would oppress others.  At Trump Tower we sadly watched as a sitting President abdicated the moral authority his office was meant to maintain.  When Donald Trump made excuses for White Nationalists and neo-Nazis he displayed an appalling lack of character and moral turpitude required to maintain his office.  His actions and his comments sent a message to America about what he truly believes.  It was embarrassing and humiliating for Americans to watch the Emperor tear his clothes off and reveal the naked truth about what lays beneath the surface.  I hope he understands the rest of the world was watching, and just how greatly this impacts America’s claim to the moral high ground.

Dr. Bryson is an adjunct faculty member at Fielding Graduate University, teaching classes in media and political psychologies.  He is the author of the book, The Trump Card: The Long Game of Discrediting Media and Influencing Elections.

Illustration courtesy of DonkeyHotey (DonkeyHotey/flickr)