The Trump administration has had the most erratic, unpredictable start to a presidency in recent memory. But it has been consistent on one thing: that “both sides” have equally important, legitimate points of view, no matter if there is a dispute over the rise of white supremacy in 21st century America or 19th century slavery.
It’s one of the most disturbing truths about the Trump administration, its ability to defend the indefensible, to blur the lines between right and wrong, or to pretend there is no such thing.
Just weeks after President Trump claimed that there were good, decent people among the white supremacists in Virginia who organized a demonstration that ended in the death of a woman protesting their bigotry, his chief of staff doubled-down on that sentiment during an interview on the Fox News Channel Monday night.
“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” John Kelly said Monday night on the Fox News Channel. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. … The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
Good people did fight for both the Union and Confederacy, but there were not two equal sides of the Civil War. One side, the South, fought for its “right” to forever keep black people in chains and to treat them like pets, mules, or sex slaves and to beat or maim them to keep them in line while declaring that white people were superior and always needed to be recognized as such. The Confederate States of America included language in its adopted constitution ensuring that slavery could never be outlawed. For the other side, the North, the war eventually became a fight to end slavery, but only after attempts to compromise — which would have meant preserving slavery in much of the United States, and possibly expanding it — failed.
The Founding Fathers compromised during the founding of the country — which meant accepting slavery. The clause that claimed black people were essentially only three-fifths human was a compromise. The U.S. once compromised to end slavery in some regions — by paying slaveowners reparations for the loss of their “property.”
Slavery in the United States was all about compromise — a compromise of our stated ideals and principles, a compromise that meant black people suffered for decades while so-called moderates tried to find the right mix of slavery and non-slavery that could keep enough white Americans satisfied.
Kelly, the four-star Marine general, surely knows American military history well enough to understand that sometimes compromise is deadly, not desirable.
Kelly, the chief of staff to a man who spent five years spreading the bigotry of birtherism, seems to have forgotten that truth. Obviously, he has compromised his good name too much.
This editorial originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.