Donald Trump was notoriously slow in condemning the support of White supremacists and neo-Nazis during the 2016 presidential campaign. Now in his statements following the neo-Nazi and alt-right demonstrations in Charlottesville, where one of their adherents drove a car into a crowd killing a young woman and injuring many others, his instinctive support for these groups has been quite evident.
In his first statement, he spoke of the “fine people” who were among the alt-right and neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, North Carolina. It took him two days to condemn them, in a speech which seemed written by his staff to appease the enormous wave of criticism that followed his first statement. Shortly thereafter, he defended his original statement and showed once again where his sympathies lay.
This and many other actions by Trump have revealed for all to see his innate authoritarian tendencies. His assault upon facts and the truth, and the press and other media which report facts to the public and analyze and interpret these facts in seeking connections and larger truths, is a striking aspect of this authoritarian bent. His omission of any reference to Jews in the White House’s annual Holocaust memorial statement was remarkable, and no accident. In Charlottesville, neo-Nazis were filmed chanting anti-Semitic slogans such as “Jews will not replace us,” and repeating other slogans literally translated from the Nazi lexicon, such as “Blood and Soil” (“Blut und Boden”).
Trump’s infamous lies, from his lies charging Barack Obama was not born in the United States during the “birther” movement up to the present, have revealed his racist sympathies or at least his willingness to lend white supremacists tacit backing to gain their support.
We have been so accustomed to Trump’s lies and his other violations of our democratic norms and institutions such as his constant defamation of journalists and the press, his continuing efforts to obstruct justice — by firing FBI Director James Comey, attacking Robert Mueller and his team, or trying to intimidate and shape the testimony of witnesses in the Mueller investigation — that such behavior has become accepted as normal or “normalized”.
We are worn down by the constant assault of lies. These actions become so “normalized” that they begin to be accepted with a shrug of the shoulder by not only his supporters but also many of his critics. We begin to acquiesce in such actions, thinking or saying, “Oh, that’s Trump. That’s just the way his is.”
Yet we must recognize Trump’s assaults upon the facts, upon the truth, upon the press, and his sympathies toward and willingness to use neo-Nazi and other neo-fascists to further his political goals, for what they are — grave attacks upon and threats to American democracy and the rule of law.
Before the election, it may be recalled, Trump refused to answer the question of whether he would accept the results, laying down a line of argument that the results would not be fair. Even after winning, he has maintained that three-five million votes in his favor were repressed or not counted.
In “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” (March 2017), Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written an eloquent little book of stark warnings about the rise of authoritarianism, including the threats Trump represents in the United States. Now he has written an Op-ed in the New York Times which brings those 20 lessons directly to bear on Trump in the wake of his statements about Charlottesville.
Timothy Snyder (Op- ed), “The Test of Nazism That Trump Failed,” New York Times, August 18, 2017.
Until we have been tested, there is no sense in boasting of our goodness; afterward, there is no need. After Charlottesville, President Trump faced an easy test, and failed. When presented with an obvious opportunity to condemn the evil that was and is Nazism, he first waited, then equivocated, then read from a teleprompter, then relativized. He spoke of “very fine people on both sides.”
The Nazi groups that marched in Charlottesville cannot be considered a “side.” When they carry torches, they imitate Nazi rituals. When they perform the call and response of “Trump! Hail” and “Victory! Hail!” they are translating Nazi performances that we know better in German: “Hitler! Heil!” and “Sieg! Heil!” In Charlottesville, American Nazis shouted “Sieg! Heil!” as they passed a synagogue.
When the supporters of the alt-right chant that “Jews will not replace us,” they recapitulate the Nazi idea of a world Jewry that stifles the master race and must therefore be removed from the planet. When they shout “Blood and soil,” they repeat a Nazi slogan signifying that races will murder races for land without mercy and forever.
These views do not define a “side,” but rather a worldview in which the United States of America, with its Constitution and laws, and with its hard-won daily understandings of rights and responsibilities, would no longer exist.
The president has failed when no failure can be innocent. He has provided American Nazis with three services, for which they have thanked him: He has normalized their ideology; he has excused their actions; and he has given them hope that he will blame his opponents the next time America is struck by terrorism.
Snyder writes that while we might forget these slogans and events from the 1930’s, American Nazis and Trump remember history in their own particular ways. The confederate statues are mostly from the early 20th century, but “the Confederate statues he admires are mostly artifacts of the early years of the 20th century, when Hitler admired the United States for its Jim Crow laws, and when Mr. Trump’s father was arrested at a Klan rally.”
Trump’s slogan “America First” is a summons to an alternative America, one that might have been real, one that did not fight the Nazis, one that stayed home when the world was aflame, one that failed its test.
That America might yet become our country. Whether or not it does now depends upon us. We are being tested, and so we will come to know ourselves.
Spirit of Publius