Donald Trump has no moral authority. His initial failure to renounce Nazis and white supremacists in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville overwhelms his forced, teleprompted effort to do so two days later.
His initial statement drove home that Trump is happy to accept support from white supremacists and Nazis. They formed the hardest core of the constituency that put him in office and he remains unwilling to jettison them. If anyone had doubts, we now have seen the soul of the man on stark display. It is immoral, ignorant, and inhumane. Trump’s latest statement reasserting the false equivalence between Nazis and counter protesters should be the last straw. Indeed, his press conference statements that there were “very fine people” among the white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville reveals that our nation is now led by an apologist for heinous actors we should all condemn. The nation needs leadership. This clownish, but dangerous, buffoon cannot provide it. It is time to cancel the Trump show.
The most effective way for that to happen, of course, is for his own party to rise up and reject him. Some Republican leaders mustered the courage to speak out against the president’s failure to renounce the racism on display in Charlottesville. But with tax cuts still on the table, they will not match words with action by opposing Trump’s policies. By failing to do so, they support the forces of racism and should not be excused. In the end, their craven empowerment of Trump will kill the Republican Party. It has long since, through its appeals to white backlash against minority gains, become the party of white people. Its current stance takes it one step further toward becoming the party of white nationalism – a course that will be enormously destructive to the country. Trump’s latest tweet, reasserting a false equivalence between the violent white supremacists in Charlottesville and the counter-demonstrators, should convince the last holdouts that Trump is in thrall to the alt-right.
Republicans who do want to move beyond words should join with Democrats in pursuing an agenda that will neutralize the Trump onslaught and protect American values. First, they should demand that the President purge the alt-right and its racist agenda from the White House. That means at a minimum firing Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka. They should also insist that Trump speak to the nation at length and with feeling, renouncing Nazis, white supremacists, and all racists. He should demonstrate his understanding of our history and the needs of our modern society that make this renunciation essential. Perhaps most important, he needs to show that he understands that America is defined by a set of ideals, nearly perfect in conception and tragically flawed in their implementation, that require equal treatment and protection of liberty according to the rule of law. Acceptance of those ideals is the sine qua non for any president, just as it is for any patriotic American. Trump is incapable of doing this, but Republicans should insist, nonetheless.
Republican leaders should renounce explicitly the support of white supremacists, Nazis, skinheads, Ku Klux Klan members, and violent militia members. They should then convene hearings in Congress on hate groups and the threat of domestic terrorism they pose. The hearings should include examination of groups operating on the fringes of the internet. There will, of course, be an effort to “balance” the hearings by bringing in extremist groups that oppose the right. That’s fine. Domestic terrorism has been a sensitive subject for Republican politicians because the most visible threats in recent years have come from groups whose goals – though not their tactics – overlap with the Republican agenda, including opposition to abortion, contempt for the federal government, protection of gun rights, and opposition to civil rights laws and remedies. Indeed, the GAO reported in April that between 2001 and the end of 2016, far-right groups killed 106 people in the United States, while groups associated with left-wing causes did not kill a single person. As a result, Republicans have been reluctant to shine a spotlight on these groups, but the time has come. This inquiry must be conducted with sensitivity regarding the First Amendment. It should focus only on groups that promote violence.
Republicans should join with Democrats in pursuing a national effort to remove Confederate monuments from public settings. These monuments were erected, for the most part, either to promote the myth of the nobility of the Lost Cause or to rally resistance to the civil rights movement. They are not historical monuments. They are attempts at historical revisionism. The Lost Cause was a treasonous uprising to preserve slavery that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And the civil rights movement succeeded despite the monuments because it was just, and the revisionists represented a cause that was not. The real history of the Civil War – warts and all – will live on through books and art, and in museums. We should not use our public spaces to honor treason. Trump, in his latest tweet, demonstrated no understanding of the movement to remove Confederate monuments, asking whether George Washington would be next.
While the decision to remove a monument may be most effective if made at the local level, the monuments raise federal concerns in two ways. First, they impinge on the ability of individuals of color and those sympathetic to them to use public spaces. They also have become rallying points for violent white supremacists and fascists who resist their removal. As such, they threaten the domestic tranquility of communities in many states. Congress should hold hearings and explore national remedies. At the very least, it should fund a commission to explore and disseminate the history of the monuments to encourage communities to face up to and make educated choices.
Trump’s nominee to become Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, will likely come before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing in the fall. Senators need to explore in depth his views on white supremacist groups and the alt-right. He should not be confirmed unless he rejects white nationalism and those who support it. He must also be questioned in depth about a host of issues, including the Trump Justice Department’s change in position in supporting the intentionally discriminatory Texas photo ID law, and the backing away from police consent decrees. He should also be asked about his views on Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag.
Dreiband should not be confirmed unless he acknowledges that there is no evidence of substantial in-person voter fraud, despite Trump’s lies and the establishment of his bogus voting commission. Indeed, all members of Congress need to renounce the voting commission, which is a transparent attempt to perpetuate the myth of massive voter fraud. Sadly, the Republican Party has pursued laws to make voting more difficult, in the knowledge that the voters most likely to be disfranchised are minorities, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Responsible members of Congress should not continue this anti-democratic initiative. If the voting commission is to survive, it must be transformed through the addition of voting advocates to offset the partisan construction of the current commission, and its mandate must be restructured to include examination of ways to make voting easier to strengthen our democracy.
Congress should again take seriously its responsibility to legislate to ensure protection of civil rights. Legislation to restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act has been pending in both houses since soon after the Act was eviscerated by a hubristic majority on the Supreme Court that thought it better understood the state of discrimination than overwhelming majorities of Congress.
Congress should also examine carefully the events of Charlottesville, which are likely to be repeated in communities around the country as white supremacist extremists use violence to preserve Confederate monuments. Current federal criminal civil rights law, which generally focuses on the race of the victim as the motivating element, does not provide an obvious basis for prosecution. Congress should examine ways to strengthen federal protection for marchers in opposition to racial discrimination.
Finally, it is time for responsible people of all walks of life to stop participating in the Trump show. It is heartening to see CEOs resigning from Trump’s Manufacturing Council. More should. Across the board, people should stop serving as props and legitimizers for this dangerous man.
Meanwhile, as the Russia investigation advances, we must all continue to call out Trump for every ignorant, mean, destructive, and racist thought that pops out of his corrupt mind. We must not let his behavior become business as usual.
Bill Yeomans is the Senior Justice Fellow at Alliance for Justice. He currently serves as Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and previously taught constitutional law, civil rights, and legislation at American University Washington College of Law. He also served for 26 years in the Department of Justice, where he litigated cases involving voting rights and discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and prosecuted police officers and racially motivated violent offenders before assuming a series of management positions, including acting Assistant Attorney General. For three years, Bill served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has also held positions at AFJ and the American Constitution Society. The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Alliance for Justice.