A storm gathers over the United States, threatening to inundate the very foundations of our civic edifice. In the heat of recriminations over the events of Charlottesville it would be easy to divert attention from this underlying reality. But the dangers are so grave that no effort should be spared in seeking to identify it and to respond to it.
It is immaterial what President Trump thinks about the extreme Right or the extreme Left, for the simple reason that the campaign to resist Trump calculates really to accomplish the fall of something far more important than a president. We will understand this best if we revisit the months since last November’s election in a clearer light. For on the morning after the election everyone faced (whether acknowledged or not) the question of how to respond to that dramatic expression of public hopes.
The looming question was not whether to support President Trump. It was rather whether to vindicate the people of the United States in their conduct in this election. This question was important not only for those who opposed candidate Trump but also for those who supported him. As one of the former, I was acutely aware of the importance of the moment. Indeed, I may go further and acknowledge that I became a “Never Trumper” before the escalator reached the ground on the day Trump announced his candidacy.
So resolved was I in my principles that, in response to those who challenged me with the prospect that I had to choose between Trump and the Devil, I replied deliberately that I had rather see my country fail than sacrifice my settled understanding of what the public good required. Accordingly, the election of Donald Trump presented me with the opportunity to measure the extent of the principles I had embraced. While it may be enticing to imagine that a country, no less than an individual, ought to prefer noble failure to base success, it is nonetheless matter of grave practical significance just what obligations would flow in one or the other circumstance.
I did not hesitate to greet the outcome of the election as the authentic expression of the hopes of the people of the United States. Accordingly, I had no need to reconsider my long-standing commitment to defend the people’s authority in this regard, no matter whether I thought they erroneously sought the fulfillment of those hopes in any particular person or measure. In embracing the necessity to defend the expression of the people’s hopes, I understood that I must be obligated to defend the authority of the incumbent in the presidency without regard to any predilections I may have had in that regard.
As a result, I have never been embarrassed by the “how can you defend that man” attitude that prevails in the sustained media narrative. Nor am I embarrassed by that attitude in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville. How much easier it is to adhere to the standards I recognize as binding in a case in which it may easily be seen that President Trump is quite correct in seeking to formulate a response that candidly acknowledges deep fissures in the society while resisting the desire to elevate “naming and shaming” into the official posture of the government. However important it is for individuals to adhere to “naming and shaming” as a necessary tool to sustain civilized relations (and I have previously written emphatically in support of that perspective), that responsibility cannot be assigned to any public office without fatally impairing its social utility in the hands of the people.
The truth, however, is that on this occasion the president is correct and his critics are wrong. They are wrong, partly, from misperceiving the character of the moment. And they are wrong partly from deliberately manipulating hatred of the president toward the surreptitious goal of defeating the public hopes expressed in the election. This is the crux of the matter. The extreme Left is unhappy with the people of the United States, and it is not too extreme to suggest that they hate them insofar as they regard them as differing in their hopes and ambitions from the future the extreme Left would project for such “deplorables.”
One can grasp this at least imaginatively if one will simply rehearse the events of the weekend of August 11-13, 2017 as they actually unfolded. Responding to a symbolically significant public action to remove statutes from a public park and to rename the park in honor of the slaves freed by the Civil War, white nationalists prepared and announced a protest. They intended that the city and the nation would behold them expressing resistance to the notion that society in the United States might close the book on the affectation that the defenders of slavery were defending honor and decency. They laid claim to the protections of the First amendment to the Constitution and to the lawful processes of licensing and permitting to stage this public demonstration. They expected a confrontation and came equipped to engage in one, including arms. They expected also, however, the protection of public authorities, whose duty it was to prevent confrontation turning into conflict.
At the same time, leftist organizers planned to assemble and protest the protesters, laying claim to the protections of the First Amendment no less confidently. They too expected a confrontation and came equipped to engage in one. Their goal was to speak not only to the municipality but the entire nation in an act of “naming and shaming.”
And the confrontation and the conflict came. Long before the murder, the scene had become one of ugly confrontation, superintended but not prevented by the local and state police.
So far, so good. There was a third party to this drama, however, and that consisted of the state and municipal authorities who were fully informed of and prepared for the looming confrontation. They had the responsibility to ensure that confrontation would not descend into conflict. The usual method of accomplishing this result is to maintain effective separation between the protesting groups. In this the authorities failed miserably. But why did they fail? Were there efforts inadequate? Or, did they not make the effort at all?
the game here is to disorient the society, repudiate the people’s express hopes, and pave the way for a United States disconnected from the people’s legitimate authority. It is not Trump that they hate; it is us!
We begin to comprehend the dynamics of that eventful weekend when we admit one other dramatic fact that stares us in the face: two groups mutually antagonistic and well prepared with weapons to do harm to one another engaged, with violent conflict resulting but without a single weapon being fired! This singular restraint teaches a great deal about what actually transpired. Despite the wild card of a single individual flying off the leash and driving a car into a crowd with murderous effect, the overall demonstrations were colored by a determination not to proceed to extreme conduct. And this determination acted so powerfully that, even while authorities (by shrinking from preventing direct conflict) invited them to do their worst, they nevertheless did not do so. The calculation on both sides, apparently, was that it was sufficient on this occasion to garner propaganda material.
This recitation makes it unnecessary to inquire who threw the first punch. And so the president did not do so. That he became the target of reproach, then, rather than the negligent (or culpable) local and state officials, speaks volumes. Anyone might credibly imagine that responsible authorities were in on the plan to exploit this occasion in order to advance an agenda that, while blaming racism, would actually serve to undermine the credibility of the public voice expressed in the election. The drumbeat for “naming and shaming” that has followed since only amplifies this appearance. And the local and state authorities have been among the loudest declaimers!
We do not need to search for previous comparisons in order to evaluate the present circumstance. We need only pay attention to the NPR or other media focus to observe the complete absence of any attention to the question of who was responsible for allowing matters to get out of control and the correlatively intense focus on what the president’s reaction says about the nation. Then we may clearly apprehend that the game here is to disorient the society, repudiate the people’s express hopes, and pave the way for a United States disconnected from the people’s legitimate authority. It is not Trump that they hate; it is us!