In his response to the violence between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, President Trump disgraced himself and further exacerbated the nation’s divisions. His description of the attitudes and actions of those involved—insisting that both sides were equally to blame for the violence—was yet another in an endless series of falsehoods. His claim that there were “very fine people” among those protesting the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue defies belief. Many of those who showed up for the Unite the Right rally were armed, marched with torches and Nazi flags, and shouted “Jews will not replace us.” One of them drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman. Trump’s obstinate cluelessness about what happened in Charlottesville is yet another example of his refusal to acknowledge facts that don’t align with his interests or self-image.
As even many Republican politicians have observed, there is no moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those who oppose them. One group was there to spew racial venom and threaten violence, the other to denounce such repugnant beliefs and actions. It seems evident that the police were not deployed in sufficient numbers to keep the two groups apart. Obscenely gratified by the violent confrontation, the supremacists promise to stage more demonstrations. Whether this tragedy will be repeated depends on the determination and competency of the police and other public-safety officials and the restraint of counterprotesters, as the subsequent peaceful demonstrations in Boston showed. No one expects any moral leadership from the White House.
That some of the counterprotesters in Charlottesville were also armed, including a group of so-called antifascists, raises serious moral and political concerns. However repellent their views, the supremacists and their fellow travelers have a right to protest and to free speech. When they are nonviolent, these pathetic displays of paranoia, ignorance, and hatred are often best ignored. That does not mean that these radical right-wing groups are harmless. In fact, their members are responsible for more acts of terrorism in the United States than radical Islamists, and they are kept under close watch by the FBI. They have been emboldened by Trump’s election, and are seeking conflict and notoriety in the hope of attracting more recruits. But while individuals associated with these groups can be dangerous, the movement itself is a fringe element in American society and politics, and should be treated as such. Even with the stark political and social divisions in the country and an authoritarian in the White House, the situation in the United States is not remotely comparable to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Our politics may be paralyzed, but this is still a nation of laws, not one of murderous street brawls between opposing civilian militias. Charlottesville, one prays, will remain an anomaly.