Bloom Briefing 32: Trump on Charlottesville, Racism and Republicanism, The Illiberal Left
Welcome to the thirty-second edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, the focus remains on Trump's response to the Nazi rally and terror attack in Charlottesville and various other fallout to those events. Links to great stuff worth your time are down below, and feel free to drop me a line if you have any thoughts on what I've written or any of the articles I linked to.
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Trump's Defense of Nazis
The president is pro-Nazi. It is an astonishing fact. Whether Trump is himself a Nazi, whether he just likes Nazis, or whether he simply is on the side of anyone who is on his side, including, in this case, Nazis, has become irrelevant. He supports American Nazis and that is all that matters.
On Tuesday afternoon, in what, even amongst the much-altered standards of the Trump-era, will go down as a strange and repulsive press conference, Trump took his decisive position on the issue. Here, in order, is what happened at the press conference:
Trump bragged about how many jobs have been created under his watch.
Trump excused his hesitation to initially condemn Nazis and white nationalists on not knowing all the facts.
Trump did not decisively call the driving of the car into the crowd of counter-protesters terrorism.
Trump, unprompted, attacked Senator John McCain for his healthcare vote.
Trump refused to condemn the alt-right, instead pivoting to the idea that there may be a just-as-bad alt-left.
Trump silenced a reporter by referring to him as “fake news.”
Trump refused to condemn Nazis and white nationalists again, saying “I've condemned neo-Nazis. I've condemned many different groups.”
Trump defended the white supremacists marching by saying that some of them were innocently there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
Trump attacked the press for being dishonest again.
Trump claimed that the logical extension of removing statues to Lee and Stonewall Jackson is removing statues to George Washington.
Trump bragged about job creation again.
Trump blamed both sides again.
Trump attacked the counter-protesters for being violent.
Trump claimed there were good people in both groups
Trump reiterated again that the removal of statues to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is the logical extension of removal of statues to the Confederacy.
Trump claimed that tearing down the statues changes history and culture.
Trump again failed to directly condemn white nationalists and neo-Nazis again, saying only that “they should be condemned,” but not doing it himself.
Trump accused the press of treating the nice, fine people marching with the white nationalists “absolutely unfairly.”
Trump claimed that the people the “night before” were good people peacefully protesting the removal of the statue.
Trump claimed that the Nazis had a permit and the counter-protesters didn’t.
Trump concluded on the subject by saying: “So I only tell you this. There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country.”
I’m not going to spend the time to parse every one of these statements individually. It should suffice to say simply that taken together, they represent an absolutely astounding attempt, from an American president, to minimize the evil of white supremacy. However three features of Trump’s press conference, each repeated numerous times, are worth highlighting.
First, the most subtle way of minimizing white supremacy is by portraying “the other side” as just as bad. This is a transparent false equivalency. Since World War II, it has been obvious that Nazis are worth condemning whenever and wherever they rear their ugly heads. This week, Trump abrogated that norm.
There is a second more overt way in which Trump’s press conference served as a defense of white nationalism. In every answer Trump gave, he implied or stated outright that the press had been too hard on white nationalists and too soft on counter-protesters. The implication is that “the people” aren’t getting “the real narrative” about the “good Nazi marchers.”
Finally, the myth that some of the people marching with Nazis were good people only serves to normalize white supremacy. Good people do not march with Nazis. Good people do not chant, “Jews will not replace us.” Good people do not carry Nazi iconography or espouse Nazi slogans. Good people do not abide other people doing any of these things. There were no good people with the Nazis, either the night before or the day of.
The combination of these three aspects of Trump’s press conference amount to a coded endorsement of white supremacism. By not directly condemning even the vilest aspects of the United the Right rally and defending the “good people” involved, any white supremacist could (and did) read it as a defense of his position.
Trumpism Is Republicanism with Extreme Rhetoric
Many Republicans have attempted to distance themselves from Trump’s implicit support for white nationalism. For some, like Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, such distancing involves flaccid statements that don’t even reference Trump himself, pretending that the Republican president of the United States doesn’t exist. For others, disavowing Trump’s comments means pretending that Trump is an aberration from Republican politics.
Rather than interpreting Trump as an aberration from Republican politics, it makes more sense to understand him as its natural apotheosis. Trump is uniquely unqualified for office and a unique threat to liberal democracy, but those facts, in and of themselves, do not make him an aberration from Republican politics. Trump is all of the above.
Of the policies in the spotlight as a result of the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, is there a single one on which Trump’s policy is different from that of a majority of Republicans? Are there any Republicans calling for the removal Confederate monuments? Are there any Republicans calling out the glut of attacks on voting rights for the racist charade to disenfranchise brown voters that they are? Are there any Republicans denouncing neo-Confederates? Are there Republicans outside of South Carolina telling people to stop flying the Confederate flag? Are there Republicans promoting the creation of monuments to Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass? Are there Republicans working to address the racist nature of American policing?
When people wonder why Republicans will only offer tepid statements denouncing Trump’s rhetoric, this is why. It’s not that they believe something appreciably different; it’s that they disagree only with the tone of the rhetoric.
Republicans have had ample opportunity to say “Enough is enough. Racism, sexism, sexual predation, race-baiting, Islamophobia, xenophobia, ableism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism are disqualifying. You don’t get to lead a major national party while holding such attitudes.” Instead, it’s tepid statement after tepid statement because Republicans don’t have an alternative to policies that explicitly or implicitly systematize racial discrimination.
Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Republicans have relied upon coded (or overt) racist language to win their base: rural white voters. From Nixon’s southern strategy to Reagan’s welfare queens to George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad, racist appeals have been part and parcel of Republican campaign strategies for the last half-century.
Again, this isn’t to say that Trump isn’t uniquely awful. I fully believe that even a Mike Pence or a Marco Rubio would be significantly better than Trump. There is evidence that Trump actually believes in the genetic superiority of his German genes, which I suspect most Republicans do not. Trump seems to be totally uncommitted to any policy positions except those that will get him power, which in my estimation, is actually worse than being committed to certain undesirable policy positions. But Trump’s policies are the logical extension of decades of Republican race-baiting, and we should not let Republicans off the hook for that.
The Left Must Stop End Its Dalliance with Illiberalism
Social media networks have been circulating with unsound arguments in favor of committing violence against Nazis and liberal activists are trying to get institutions (schools, employers, corporations) to sever ties with those espousing racist views.
One of the most serious examples of this came from Shaun King, who posted a video of a student who is to attend Texas Tech (evidently as a first-year) this fall recording himself saying offensive and racist things. In the post, King encourages Texas Tech to revoke his acceptance. (I think Shaun King does incredibly important journalism and activism, but I also think this is over the line.)
This kid is likely 17 or 18, probably comes from a family that also espouses these hateful views, and college will be an opportunity for him to learn about what racism is and why it’s wrong. How do we expect to rid society of racism if we are to reject people from society simply for holding hateful views? Is this not more likely to solidify such views. And isn't this especially true when it comes to denying someone high learning in a diverse environment, the very thing most likely to disabuse him of these views?
I’d also pose that there is a danger in policing what people think. While I believe in certain circumstances employers have legitimate grounds for terminating employment when the free expression of the individual creates a legitimate business case for termination, we ought to be exceedingly wary about this becoming the de facto state of affairs, and the burden of proof ought to be on the employer to demonstrate said business case.
Imagine, if you will, that someone maintains hateful views, but that they are totally private. He writes in his diary all the worst kinds of racist nonsense, but never espouses these views publicly. One day, while hosting the holiday Christmas party, a coworker discovers the diary and reports its existence and contents to the company. Should the man be fired?
I think most people, even most people who think that such beliefs are abhorrent, would say no, and I think that would be the right answer. If you can be fired for holding certain unsavory political views, what is to stop you from being fired for holding others? What’s to stop employers from targeting those people affiliated with Black Lives Matter or, as was the case several decades ago, the NAACP?
The United States has less of a history of imprisoning political dissidents than many other countries, but that doesn’t mean we should assume that it cannot happen here. There is a reason why “political opinion” is one of the protected designations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The perils of discrimination against a class of people for their political views should be obvious, even if those political views are among the most abhorrent known to man.
In dangerous times, the siren call of illiberal impulses rings ever more seductive. As the situation becomes graver, it will be that much harder, and consequently that much more important, to resist the temptation of such illiberal views. Violence begets violence. Illiberalism begets illiberalism. Nazis are evil, but we don’t get to be committed to freedom of speech, assembly, thought, and political affiliation only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternate Sundays. Our commitment to these freedoms must be absolute.
My “if you read one thing this week” is actually an “if you watch one thing this week.” Many of you have likely already seen the Vice News documentary about the Unite the Right rally. If you have not, I encourage you to watch it. Even if you are familiar with the far right, it is a jarring 22 minutes of footage from people Trump spent an entire press conference defending.
There was a lot of good writing on Charlottesville. Personally, I recommend Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker and Jamelle Bouie at Slate. They are two of my favorite commentators on American politics, and Bouie now lives in Charlottesville. The writing from Nicole Hemmer, another Charlottesville local, at US News is also spectacular. You should really read all three of these pieces.
At the New York Times, Lindy West has made a searing argument, similar to the second section of this newsletter, that the Republican Party is Donald Trump’s party. It doesn’t get a pass for his evil. On this point and Charlottesville and others, David Remnick at the New Yorker has also written a smart piece.
Also at the New York Times, Nathan Englander wrote a somber piece about the impact of Charlottesville on Jews, and specifically young Jews who might not otherwise understand that they can be the object of such hate.