The events this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia — angry, white men bearing tiki torches and chanting Nazi slogans while guarded by an armed militia — were horrifying. Equally horrifying was President Donald Trump’s complete lack of understanding, or condemnation, of the hatred and terror spread by the angry white men who felt safe shouting “Heil Trump” and “Jews won’t replace us” precisely because he is in the White House.
The president, taking a break from golfing in New Jersey on Saturday, said: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
The displays of bigotry and hatred in Charlottesville were not coming from many sides. They were coming from angry white men who traveled to the city. Men who pledged their allegiance to Trump, some complete with a Nazi salute. Men, who marched through a college campus under cover of darkness carrying tiki torches and then beat University of Virginia students, who had gathered around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, with their torches.
A car slammed into a group countering the “Unite the Right” rally with calls for acceptance and understanding. Heather Heyer was killed, and 19 people were injured. The driver, a 20-year-old from Ohio who came to Virginia for the rally, was charged with second-degree murder.
When similar events happened in other countries, Trump and others were were quick to call it terrorism.
What happened in Charlottesville was terrorism, too. Men, some wearing helmets and bearing shields, carrying Nazi and Confederate flags and shouting racist and anti-Semitic chants have only one goal in mind — terrorizing those who are not like them.
The United States has a long tradition of free speech and free association. But when free speech turns into hate speech, coupled with intentional violence, it can no longer be defended. It has no place in the United States.
The White House on Sunday tried to mute the criticism of Trump’s Saturday statement by saying the president meant to condemn “all extremist groups.” In a third attempt, at the White House, Trump condemned generally hatred, bigotry and violence and said anyone who engaged in violence in Charlottesville would be prosecuted.
Then, he added: “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to all that we hold dear as a nation.”
It shouldn’t have taken three tries to condemn these groups, but only when they are violent.
Trump has also called for a study of what led to the situation in Charlottesville “to see what we are doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen.”
It can be a quick study. When Trump whipped up racist anger at his rallies and appointed white nationalists to work in his administration, it sent a clear message to groups like those behind the events in Charlottesville that he was on their side. “We are determined to take our country back,” former KKK leader David Duke said of the protests on Saturday. “That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.” He later condemned Trump for his weak rebuke of what happened in Charlottesville, tweeting that it was “White Americans” who put him in the White House.
Wrongly blaming immigrants for crime and job losses, banning immigration from Muslim countries, creating a commission aimed at suppressing the votes of minority groups, directing the Justice Department to investigate college admission policies for discrimination against white students — all of these actions send a clear message about whom the White House values.
Trump did not create the neo-Nazi, white supremacists groups that descended on Charlottesville or their hatred. But he has empowered them and signaled that their hate has a place in this country. Now, he needs to play a leading role in minimizing their power to terrorize.