It is hardly surprising that there is a segment of society in the United States that embraces prejudice. It is dispiriting, but not completely unexpected, that after decades of civil rights battles, and more than 70 years after American soldiers fought the Nazis in Europe, we see displays of support for the views of white supremacists on U.S. soil.
But what is truly stunning, what is utterly unacceptable, is that president of the United States finds it so difficult to clearly and unequivocally reject that ideology.
President Trump appeared before the cameras on Saturday as Americans were sickened by images on their televisions showing white supremacists carrying Nazi flags, chanting racist and anti-Semitic epithets, and clashing with protesters who were incensed by that display of hatred. Trump had a crucial job as leader of the country. His task was important, but not particularly difficult: There were a million ways to say that the United States rejects white supremacists; that Americans gave their lives to protect the very freedoms that these groups want to roll back.
Incredibly, Trump did not do that. Instead, he tried to finesse what is known as a “dog whistle.” Even more incredibly, he failed at that, too.
A “dog whistle” in political communications is a message containing elements that are recognizable to one segment of the audience, while the majority cannot hear it. But Trump’s dog whistle malfunctioned. Everyone heard it.
Trump started with a few of the right words. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence that’s on many sides.” Then he paused, looked up, and repeated, “on many sides.”
In a battle between fascists and their opponents, Trump condemned “all sides.”
That was the first whistle, the first message hinting that when he talked about displays of hatred, he included the people fighting the neo-Nazis.
He repeatedly called for “law and order,” a phrase that resonates with a special meaning in some circles. He was on target when he said, “We’re all Americans first” regardless of color, religion, or political party, but his call to “cherish our history” no doubt had a different meaning for white supremacists protesting the removal of a confederate statue than it did for the rest of the people listening to Trump.
The statement, not surprisingly, was a big hit with American neo-Nazis. In the Daily Stormer, a U.S. Nazi website, editors approved. “Trumps comments were good … implied that there was hate … on both sides!” They noted, “There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. … When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.”
“Really, really good,” they concluded, “God bless him.”
But if the message came though clearly to people listening on what was supposed to be a different ideological frequency, the rest of us heard pretty much the same thing.
Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacists did not go unnoticed in a country that passionately rejects that kind of prejudice.
It’s not a Republican vs. Democratic position, it’s an overwhelmingly American position.
From left to right, prominent figures found Trump’s statements grossly inadequate. Mike Huckabee, a deeply conservative Trump supporter, tweeted “ ‘White supremacy’ crap is worst kind of racism — it’s EVIL.” Jeb Bush tweeted, “The white supremacists and their bigotry do not represent our great country. All Americans should condemn this vile hatred.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, like many others, not-so-subtly urged Trump to change his tone, tweeting “We reject racism and violence of white nationalists. … Everyone in leadership must speak out.”
I expect that the pressure will eventually get to the president and he will grudgingly say the right words. But through the weekend he kept his “even handedness.” When we learned that a neo-Nazi had rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, Trump’s tweeted his phony moral equivalence: “Condolences to the family of the young woman killed today, and best regards to all those injured in Charlottesville, Virginia. So sad!”
The trite “best regards,” and the insipid “So sad” pale in their inappropriateness in contrast to Trump’s failure to highlight the circumstances of the killing, and his placing of all the victims — those fighting for white supremacy and those fighting against it — on the same moral plane.
Prejudice is as old as humanity, and may be with us until the end of time. The good news is that those who embrace it in the United States make up a small part of society. But when the president of the United States cannot genuinely condemn them, whether for political reasons or because of his own beliefs, the country has a far, far more serious problem to confront.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald.