Donald Trump said on Tuesday that there “fine people” on both sides of the clash that happened last Saturday in Charlottesville.
The president is getting something really important really wrong here.
At the event that was ostensibly about whether a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee should be removed, the counter-protest side had many “good people” who wanted to speak out against white supremacists. Being a white supremacist, last time I checked, is bad. Opposing them is good. Pretty simple.
But there were also professional leftists who arrived at the event seeking violence, as my colleague Matt Purple notes. They were specifically to blame for helping fueling the violence. Trump is not wrong about that.
But on the pro-statue side, it was all white nationalists. The whole lot. They carried not just Confederate flags but swastikas. They did Nazi salutes. I grew up in South Carolina and have had my own history with confederate flags, as has my home state. Nazi symbolism combined with that flag drives home the inescapable point that these people are promoting white supremacy. Even those who didn’t sport explicit racist symbols tried in different ways to look “fashy” (fascist).
Let’s be clear, the people representing the pro-statue side were not mere Civil War re-enactors or Southern history buffs or non-racist admirers of Lee there to make the historical argument for keeping the statue. I know those people. I used to be one of those people. They were not present on the streets of Charlottesville last weekend. In fact, some of the “Heritage not Hate” types now want to hold a separate event to show they are not neo-Nazis.
The pro-statue side was there precisely because they are racist. That’s exactly what they wanted to broadcast, which they did loud and clear. They did not care about Lee. That was just the excuse to hold a racist event. They care about white power and/or pride. They were precisely interested in the racial antagonism contained within the Lee debate, not honoring the general.
Perhaps Trump mistakenly thought there were some more well-meaning Southern heritage enthusiasts among the Nazi symbols on Saturday? If so, he is dead wrong.
And if so, how disconnected the president is from a controversy of this magnitude is troubling.