“We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.” – David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, on the white supremacist-inspired violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the weekend.
There is such a thing as leadership.
A leader stands for what is right, honest and fair in society. He or she defends the principles of justice and decency. He or she does not hesitate to slap down even their most ardent supporters when the course they want the leader to follow would lead the nation into division and danger.
Donald Trump is no leader. He could not bring himself to disown the repulsive collection of Klansman, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, anti-Semites and garden-variety racists and bigots who marched in the Virginia college town that is best known as the home of Thomas Jefferson. They carried Confederate flags and flaming torches, giving Nazi salutes and shouting “Heil Trump.”
The President should be appalled and disgusted. He should feel physically ill.
He may not know much about many things, and history is not one of his strong suits, but he has a memory and he is old enough to remember some of the background to the kind of outrage that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend. He is certainly old enough to remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
He is old enough to remember what happened in May 1961 when the first two buses of “Freedom Riders” from the north arrived in the Deep South. One bus was firebombed in Alabama. KKK members boarded the second bus and beat the activists while Alabama police stood by and watched.
If not Alabama, how about Mississippi? He is old enough to remember the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. Three young civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, were working to register black voters in the state. With the complicity of a deputy sheriff, they were abducted by the Klan and murdered. If Trump doesn’t remember, perhaps he saw the movie – “Mississippi Burning.”
Trump may thrill the likes of David Duke, but he did himself, the presidency and his party no favours in the hours after Charlottesville. At first, he was silent – nary a tweet from his New Jersey golf course where he was vacationing. Then he gave reporters a statement in which he sought to spread the blame broadly and thinly for the violence that had disrupted a peaceful protest by a largely black crowd. One onlooker died, a woman who was deliberately run down (19 others were injured), and two state troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed near the scene.
Trump’s statement: "We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides.”
On many sides?
Nonsense. There is only one side to blame, as the White House finally acknowledged on Sunday afternoon: it is the white supremacists who came to town with violence on their mind. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe got that message straight when he told the KKK and the rest: "Please go home and never come back. There is no place for you here, there is no place for you in America."
It would be reassuring to believe there is no place for the Klan and other white supremacists in America, but is it true or realistic? If history teaches nothing else, it is that racial prejudice and religious intolerance – call them what they are: hatred – do not disappear as time passes, as politicians move along or news cameras look in another direction. They linger close to the surface, waiting to be revived by a Trump campaign speech or Twitterburst. In Canada, as we have seen, they can be revived by the foolish anti-immigration rhetoric of a Kellie Leitch.
Whether Trump realizes it, history does not go away. It waits to repeat itself. All it needs is a nudge from someone who thinks he is a leader.