On August 12, white supremacists gathered at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Counter-protesters arrived and violence quickly ensued. As Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, continues to lead marches in Charlottesville, this event has and will remain relevant indefinitely. Though it occurred two months ago, it should still be in the forefront of our minds, even as we are continually bombarded with Trump’s new missteps.
A white nationalist plowed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring dozens and killing one, followed by the crash of a helicopter monitoring the events, killing two state troopers. Donald Trump, at a press conference in New Jersey, released a statement that did not acknowledge the situation at hand, and left people wondering if he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Meanwhile, Pearce Tefft, a father in North Dakota desperately wrote to his local newspaper to denounce his son due to his son’s affiliation with the rally, and his deplorable racist beliefs. We should be concerned when a father’s immediate response to the Charlottesville incident is to publicly cut ties with his own white nationalist son, while Trump, the president, a symbolic father of a nation, does not immediately condemn the Neo-Nazis, KKK, and white nationalists responsible for the violence–or even call them by name.
When Tefft discovered that his son, Peter, participated in the rally, he resolved that he had to release a statement out of fear that people would associate him and his family with his racist son’s beliefs. He wrote to his local newspaper of Fargo, North Dakota that until his son changes his hateful and bigoted ways, he is not welcome to family gatherings or considered part of the family. “We have been silent up until now, but now we see that this was a mistake,” wrote Tefft. “It was the silence of good people that allowed the Nazis to flourish the first time around, and it is the silence of good people that is allowing them to flourish now.”
The ostracizing of Peter has, no doubt, been an emotionally painful process for Pearce, but was done in a definitive stance against hate and bigotry. He identified him as a Nazi and did not attempt to hide or lessen the maliciousness of his son’s actions. The hate his son showed was powerful enough to lead a father to sacrifice his relationship with his own son; but all the bigotry initially prompted from Trump was a delayed, ambiguous response:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It has been going on for a long time in our country — not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America.”
The first red flag of this statement is its failure to depict who is to blame for the Charlottesville incident. He does not even identify the two sides of the conflict: white nationalists/ Neo-Nazis/ KKK and counter-protesters fighting against bigotry and hate.
He then appears to claim that there was “bigotry” on both sides. There was certainly hate on both sides, but on one side it was hate for racism and white nationalism–a hate that is justifiable. It is also true that there was violence on both sides, but regardless of whether violence was the best way to respond, it still cannot be used to suggest that blame is to be taken upon the counter-protesters for the conflict.
Though the use of violence to protest is ethically debatable, counter-protesters still took a definitive stance against racism and showed it through their actions–something Trump has failed to do. It cannot be argued, however, that there was bigotry on both sides; if he was implying this, then Trump wants to argue that it is an injustice to not be open to and accept these people’s racist and warped beliefs.
The emphasis on the phrase “many sides” further supports the insinuation that this was an equal, mutual fight between far-right and far-left radicals. This is not simply a liberal versus conservatives conflict, but one between ethically corrupt human beings and people who stand and are willing to fight for equality.
He then seems to try to alleviate himself of any blame for the conflict by acknowledging that racial conflict has been present throughout our country’s history, not just under the Obama and Trump administrations. Though this is correct, the intentions of this statement are to fend off future claims that he is responsible for the recent rise of racial violence and tension.
This was not a time to pre-address backlash he knew he would receive; it was a time to focus on the victims of the incident. He finishes by saying that bigotry has no place in America, which is also true, but is a point he did not directly address and focus on–which is what he should have done the whole time.
Following Trump’s initial response, Pence released a statement that identified the culprit and denounced them concisely, as the President should have done, saying there is “no tolerance for hate and violence, white supremacists or Neo-Nazis or the KKK.”
However, the backlash had already begun, and Democrats and Republicans alike were already bashing the President’s response. Two days later, Trump released a more detailed statement that did specifically name the hate groups and said that they are “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” but his words now had little effect, as they were too late. White-nationalist websites had already taken his response as a sign that our own president sees their cause only as one worthy of an upbraiding, and their actions as equatable to those of their counter-protesters.
Trump’s hesitancy to disown the white-nationalists that support him and have a newfound confidence under his reign suggest his own unwillingness to lose what little support he does have at this point, even if it is comprised of Neo-Nazis. The backlash inevitably forced him to give a more direct answer that would satisfy the public, but his values and intentions are now questioned more than ever, and no matter what he says at this point, that first response will not be forgotten.
Trump has maintained that he speaks the truth bluntly, though in this case, he finds himself in direct contradiction with one of the main mantras he ran on. He did not take a stance and tried to avoid upsetting either side, though he has not had a problem taking and blaming sides in the past.
Pearce Tefft and his family immediately and publicly castigated Peter, and pleaded for him to dissociate himself from his family. Trump only did this after severe criticism for his original statement, suggesting that, in this case, Trump’s desire for control in a nation in which his unpopularity and resistance increases has proven stronger than even the bond between father and son.
View these links to read more more op-eds regarding hate speech and free speech by the students of Mrs. Bekgran’s AP Government class: