Donald Trump did not murder Heather Heyer, the thirty-two-year-old paralegal who was killed when a car allegedly driven by neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville. But he shares some responsibility for her death.
After all, Trump lit the fuse.
Sure, there was already a powder keg. There were racial resentments that boiled to the surface during the Obama presidency, manifesting in the tea partyers and the birthers, both of whom Trump nurtured and “mainstream” Republicans tolerated so long as it suited them.
But from the second Trump announced his candidacy, he’s played footsie (or worse) with white nationalists. He’s elevated racists like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller and neo-Nazi sympathizers like Stephen Bannon and Seb Gorka to positions of power. He’s refused to call out bigots who rallied to his banner. He built a campaign rooted in a fear of the otherMexicans, Muslims, refugees, African Americanspremised on nostalgia for white hegemony.
The losers who marched this weekend, bearing tiki torches and Nazi flags, were there in his name. Trump made it OK for them to step out of the shadows. (Fields’s mother told the Associated Press that she thought her son was traveling from Ohio to Virginia for an event that “had something to do with Trump.” She wasn’t wrong.)
When violence forced Trump to say something on Saturday, all the vainglorious chump could muster was some blather about blame “on many sides,” as if Nazis and those who don’t like Nazis have moral equivalence. Trump also insisted that we need to “cherish our history,” an unsubtle nod to the KKK types who descended on Charlottesville to defend a monument to Robert E. Lee.
It took nearly twenty-four hours for the White House press shop to try to clean that up, publishing an unsigned statement on Sunday saying that “of course” Trump’s condemnation of violence “includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis and all extremist groups.” On Monday, the president took a third stab at it, begrudgingly reading from a teleprompter that “racism is evil.”
To condemn Nazis after deadly Nazi violence is the easiest political layup imaginable. Yet Trump declined until his hand was forced. This would be inexplicable if the reason wasn’t so patently obvious: Trump is terrified of aggravating his base.
Several prominent conservatives have been more forthright. A few, including Senators Cory Gardner and Marco Rubio, have criticized the president’s tepidity.
Closer to home, Senator Thom Tillis tweeted, “The hate, bigotry and violence on display in #Charlottesville is despicable and represents the complete opposite of what America stands for.” On Facebook Monday, Senator Richard Burr said, “Violence has no place in our society and we must come together as a country to condemn these acts.”
Their words are nice (though, should you really expect a cookie for saying “Nazis are bad”?). Actions would be better.
So long as they enable Trump, Republican leaders are complicit in the moral stain that he represents. And so long as the stain Trump represents goes unanswered, the more this rot will fester, the more this hatred will boil, and the more likely it is that others will share Heyer’s fate.
At the very least, every Republicanlooking at you, Tillis and Burrshould demand that Trump immediately fire Gorka, Miller, and Bannon. Bannon, of course, offered the goose steppers a safe space on Breitbart. Miller, who palled around with white supremacist Richard Spencer at Duke, has been behind the administration’s attacks on refugees and immigrants. Gorka has ties to a right-wing Hungarian group that was allied with Nazis. In any normal administration, histories half that repugnant would have prevented them from getting anywhere near the Oval Office. In Trump’s, they’re top advisers.
That the president hired them is a testament to Trump’s amorality. That Republicans haven’t forced the issue is a testament to their pusillanimity.
For the rest of us, what happened in Charlottesville this weekend should serve as a wake-up call. These voices of virulent hatred and demagoguery aren’t going to go away on their own; they need to be shamed and marginalized and defeated and thrown onto the scrap heap of history.
In her last Facebook post, Heather Heyer quoted the familiar maxim, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Let her memory remind us to stay vigilant, to stay outraged, to never lose sight of what we’re up against, to never stop fighting.