Moral leadership in the wake of Charlottesville

President Trump's more specific denunciation of racism and violence was applauded by some, but others see a need for more consistent moral leadership as the country confronts an emboldened white supremacy movement.

Bryan Woolston/Reuters
Municipal workers attempt to remove paint from a monument dedicated to Confederate soldier John B. Castleman that was vandalized late Saturday night in Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 14, 2017.

Updated at 10:54 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16.

After President Trump belatedly denounced white supremacism two days after violent weekend protests in Charlottesville, he unleashed a second wave of bipartisan criticism for follow-up comments Tuesday. Again, he blamed both sides for the violence, causing Republicans and Democrats to usurp the president’s traditional role as the nation’s moral leader with unequivocal statements of their own.

“We must be clear,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin tweeted after Mr. Trump’s Tuesday remarks. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”

Charlottesville is not the end of this story. The United States is dotted with hundreds of Confederate monuments whose potential removal, as is planned in the Virginia college town, is expected to galvanize the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups, who feel they have an ally in the president.

Historians say an issue as divisive and consequential as racism requires moral leadership that includes consistent messaging and action from the highest office in the land – though it hasn’t always gotten it.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower shrunk from the debate until he sent troops to enable nine African-Americans to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High in Arkansas – three years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954.

President John F. Kennedy also acted belatedly on civil rights, while in 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater finally reversed himself and rejected the support of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was criticized for his “states’ rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, just a few miles from the site of the racially motivated “Freedom Summer Murders” of 1964.

“There is no substitute for the president weighing in effectively on deep, moral questions,” says Brian Balogh, co-host of the public radio show “Backstory with the American History Guys” and professor of history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Presidents do this through repetition and follow-through, he says, pointing to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“LBJ demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his party’s political future in the South with the Voting Rights Act” of 1965, he says.

And former President Obama raised the issue of police brutality and race in a “balanced” way, says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station. “He was finding moral issues and raising these matters,” he says.

“I don’t think you will find Trump on the front lines of moral leadership,” he adds. “I’m not saying he’s an immoral person. He’s just not sensitive to these things.”

Why some were dissatisfied with Trump’s statement

It was important for Trump to specifically denounce the Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups as “criminals and thugs” that are “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” observers say.

But others would like the president to go a step further and fire Steve Bannon and other White House officials affiliated with the alt-right, an ideological movement combining racism, white nationalism, and populism. On Tuesday, the leaders of four House caucuses – black, Asian, Hispanic, and progressive – wrote the president demanding he remove Mr. Bannon and two other officials, claiming their presence emboldens white supremacists.

Trump’s statement on the day of violence on Saturday – condemning “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides” – created a false moral equivalency between the cause of white supremacism and opponents of it, says Mr. Edwards, though that’s not to excuse violence perpetrated against the supremacists, he adds.

“There is a cause, a catalyst for all this violence, and the catalyst is the views of the alt-right.”

People lead busy lives, Edwards goes on. They don’t have a lot of time to invest in the news. So when they see violent images, they need a clear signal of what’s going on, and the president is the natural figure to provide that signal, which he did on Monday – but only after key members of his administration, lawmakers from both parties, and civil rights leaders beat him to it.

The apparent reluctance creates the perception among white supremacists that he’s sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, Richard Spencer, a leader of the so-called “alt-right” of white extremists, told reporters on Monday that Trump’s denunciation was “kumbaya nonsense.” He added: “I don’t think anyone takes it seriously, including the president.”

On Tuesday Trump defended his initial remarks, saying he didn’t want to rush into making a statement before knowing the facts. His second statement was made with more knowledge of the situation, he said. In a testy exchange with reporters, he said the “alt-left” was also to blame for the violence, and he stated that many protesters were there to oppose the taking down of Confederate statues. "Is it George Washington next?" he asked.

Again, white supremacists felt presidential support, with former KKK leader David Duke tweeting out thanks to the president “for your honesty & courage to tell the truth” about Charlottesville and condemning “leftist terrorists” and anti-fascists.

‘Praying for those with whom we disagree’

Trump made his Monday announcement after being briefed on Charlottesville by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The Justice Department, which Mr. Sessions heads, has opened a civil rights investigation into the killing of anti-hate-group protester Heather Heyer after a car plowed into her and other people in Charlottesville on Saturday. The alleged driver of the car, James Fields, reportedly has neo-Nazi sympathies and has been charged with second-degree murder.

Later on Monday, the president tweeted that he had made additional comments on Charlottesville, but that “the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied…” Historians such as Professor Balogh, however, say moral leadership on this issue is not a one-and-done kind of thing. The anti-hate-groups message “bears repeating.”

Absent persistent presidential condemnation and action against white supremacism, says Balogh, society has to step up – corporate leaders, educators, every day citizens, perhaps even comedians – even while recognizing those groups’ First Amendment rights.

“We can’t wait for our president to lead us to the high moral ground,” agrees Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware.

A lawyer with a master's degree in ethics from Yale Divinity School, the senator told the Monitor in a statement that moral leadership has to come from faith communities, elected officials at all levels, and from activists and inspired citizens who take action for justice and reconciliation.

“We all have to show moral leadership by praying for those with whom we disagree and continuing to look for areas of common ground, instead of letting our disagreements keep us even from talking to one another.”

In the hours following the disturbing events in Charlottesville, he wrote, Americans saw a wide range of inspiring messages rejecting hate and urging Americans to come together. In his home state, all of Delaware’s political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, signed a clear and forceful statement that hate, discrimination, and violence aren’t welcome there.

“That,” Senator Coons said, “is what moral leadership looks like.”

Staff writer Peter Grier contributed to this story.

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