Another Moral Failure

After Charlottesville, President Trump can't hide — and he has nowhere to run

Trump and Charlottesville. What can we say? One writer summed things up succinctly — in Donald Trump's world there is no public interest, only Trump's personal interest. He attacks anyone who criticizes anything that he has done or said, because that person is not just taking issue with a policy position; rather, he is attacking Trump personally. This is where you end up when your sense of a public interest begins and ends with your own ego.

The truth of the matter is that Trump himself set all this in motion six years ago, when he charged that President Obama wasn't born in America; the "birther" issue. Then he doubled down with "Lock her up!" referring to Hillary Clinton. Both charges were nothing more than crass appeals to his hatemonger base. And it worked.

Now, it turns out that he can't hide. And he has nowhere to run. He exposed himself on the day of the attack in Charlottesville when he refused to use the terms "white nationalists" and "racists" and asserted that there was blame to go around.

The president could have defused the situation had he done the right thing by denouncing both, by calling what happened at the home of Jefferson what it was — a racist, terrorist attack, which his Attorney General has now done. But he didn't. He just couldn't bring himself to denounce his base — and that's who those rioters are, his base.

Were he to be straightforward, his base would feel rejected, and might then reject him, and that would just not do. So he waffled, stopping far short of saying what John F. Kennedy would have said — for that matter, what every one of the other nine presidents since Kennedy would have said.

Yes, Trump really said that there was blame on both sides, another way of saying, "My base is off the hook." After two days passed, he tried to make things right with a follow-up statement, and only succeeded in making things worse: In light of the events, his initial response and the delay, his words seemed hollow. When a CNN reporter asked Trump why he couldn't have made this statement earlier, what did he do? Attacked the reporter for even asking the question. Back to the "fake news" diversion.

Robert McClendon, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, puts an adult twist on the question of honoring Robert E. Lee; his is a take that would seem at least to engage the issue where it needs to be engaged:

"People of goodwill can disagree on whether [New Orleans'] Lee Circle (or the Lee statue in Charlottesville) should be renamed and the general removed from his perch. But the debate should acknowledge certain facts: Lee thought black people inferior to whites; through his wife's estate, he owned many slaves; and he fought for the independence of a nation founded to preserve the institution of slavery for economic gain."

That's the truth of the matter: The Confederacy was always more about slavery than about states' rights. Actually, at the time, they were one and the same.

All those other Confederate statues out there? Likely, many will now come under attack. Thus, with reference to McClendon's appeal to honesty, if there are reasons why statues of Robert E. Lee or school buildings named after him should remain, it falls to supporters to make the case — and now is the time. One bottom line: Appealing to the so-called, mythical Southern "Lost Cause" won't fix things, because the "Lost Cause" was — yes — the cause of slavery.

Are there other justifications for keeping around Confederate statues and names? Frankly, I think so. I graduated from Washington-Lee High School in 1956. Located in Arlington, Virginia, W-L, as it is known, goes by the nickname "The Generals." So do we take away the Lee name? Take away "The Generals"? I wouldn't support that — it would rise above my personal level of political correctness.

My point: You can't airbrush the likes of a Robert E. Lee from Virginia history. Nor should you. I mean, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, for crying out loud. As did most of the other Founding Fathers from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Now, if you ask me if I would support taking the "George Wright" out of "Fort George Wright Drive," I'm all in. The U.S. Army colonel is best known for hanging the Yakama chief Qualchan, who came into Wright's camp on Latah Creek under a white flag, in September 1858.

A serious President of the United States would seize on what happened in Charlottesville and use it as a teaching moment. Unfortunately, teaching moments are way, way beyond Donald Trump's emotional, moral and intellectual capacity. What we have here is a rabble-rouser, a man who instead of attempting to teach us, can only yowl about "fake news." ♦

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.