Republicans in both houses of Congress on Tuesday responded with an unprecedented outrage to President Donald Trump’s renewed rant about the weekend’s riots in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Supposedly in his element, in the lobby of NY City’s Trump Tower, the President diverted from a planned statement about the infrastructure to re-ignite the already waning debate about his own comments on Charlottesville. As you likely recall, Trump offered only noncommittal statements about violence from all sides and how it wasn’t his fault (nor Obama’s); then, two days later, on Monday, after having been blasted by his own party members, he finally consented to condemn the KKK, the neo-Nazis and the White Supremacists. It was too little, too late, according to many, but it did the job, allowing the Administration to go back to the task of making America Great Again.
Fat chance. Constitutionally incapable of letting bygones be bygones, Trump went off-script again on Tuesday, to defend his much maligned statements on Saturday. “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?” he asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
Obviously injured, Trump continued, “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. […] You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
Then he delivered his killer catastrophe quip: “You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
Even if there were some truth to Trump’s statement, that the counter-protesters in Charlottesville were just as violent as the people they were trying to stop, it is still indigestible to hear an American president describe neo-Nazis, Clansmen, and White Supremacists who converged on a Virginia city carrying their Nazi and Confederate flags and wearing their Nazi uniforms and KKK robes – as “very fine people.”
What you want is for your president to issue his condemnation of US Nazis early and emphatically, and then let others deal with the play-by-play commentary. Never mind the conspiracy theories about how Trump doesn’t want to alienate the Nazi vote – but can you imagine an American president hesitating to condemn Nazis?
But if you do harbor a conspiracy theorist inside you, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that one of the first responses to Trump’s Tuesday statement came from former KKK Wizard David Duke, who tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
All of that was not lost on the Republican Party, which, at this point, on the eve of the mid-elections year of 2018, is starting to grasp the potential fallout from a presidency which nets upwards of a 37% job approval rating, day in and day out.
Senator Marco Rubio (Florida), Senator Rob Portman (Ohio), Senator Jeff Flake (Arizona), House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wisconsin), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California), the vehemently pro-Israel Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida), Congressman Will Hurd (Texas), even the recovering House majority whip Steve Scalise (Louisiana) were quick to draw their Twitter accounts and shoot their outraged retorts.
Senator Rubio was emphatic in a succession of tweets, saying, “Mr. President, you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame. They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain,” followed by: “The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win. We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected.”
Senator Ros-Lehtinen stressed the same idea: “Blaming ‘both sides’ for #Charlottesville?! No. Back to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists? Just no.”
Later on, more anti-Trump Republicans took to Tweeter, including Senator John McCain (Arizona), Senator Jerry Moran (Kansas), Senator James Lankford (Oklahoma), Senator Thom Tillis (North Carolina), and Senator Cory Gardner (Colorado).
Of course, the Democrats on the Hill were besides themselves with this manna from heaven, but our story is not about them but about the first, irrepressible, undeniable attack on President Trump from his own outraged Republican leaders. Still, we can’t avoid mentioning this poignant tweet from Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz: “As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment. This is not my President.”
Trump was critical of the decision by the City of Charlottesville to take down the statue of Confederacy leader Robert E. Lee in one of its parks – the decision that brought on the rage of the alt-right in the first place. “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “This week, it is Robert E. Lee. And I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
That part revealed the worst about Trump’s inability to generate presidential statements that calm rather than re-inflame the situation. For one thing, he was actually advocating for the points made by the neo-Nazis, the KKK and the rest of that revolting crowd, drawing a direct line between Washington and Jefferson, and the Confederate secessionists who fought to maintain slavery – Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. As if they all hold an equal place in the pantheon of the American Democracy.
Moreover, with his yenta-sounding, “You know, you have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” Trump implied that Southern municipalities such as Charlottesville, Virginia, which listen to demands from their Black constituencies to remove from public spaces effigies of the reign of terror of the past, such as the Confederate flags and monuments to defenders of slavery – are eventually going to go after legitimate American heroes.
That is despicable. As Jews, who are so sensitive to any public demonstration of pro-Nazism, in Europe and elsewhere, we should be able to empathize with the pain of African-Americans who are forced to watch monuments glorifying their tormentors, a century and a half after those have been swept off to the garbage heaps of history. And our President should be able to empathize with that pain, as well as with our own pain at watching blonde Aryans in Nazi jackboots hollering “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil) in the streets of our cities.