President Trump can’t catch a break. Even when he might have had a legitimate point to make about the events in Charlottesville, the tenuous connection between his mind and his mouth failed him yet again. Few situations carry more emotional complexity than the proposed removal of Confederate Civil War memorials, and the tragic death of a counter protester heated the situation well beyond the boiling point. A carefully nuanced response was called for, but as everyone from North Korea to the South Bronx is well aware, The Donald doesn’t do nuance. His convoluted ruminations wound up sounding vaguely like an endorsement of white supremacy, which it wasn’t. His critics, few of whom go for nuance themselves, turned their amps up to eleven and let fly, never giving the slightest nod to the possibility that there might be more to the story than the heinous murder of a valiant cultural warrior, abetted by society’s fave villains, the Nazis and the Klan.
The issue seems straightforward; monuments to those who defended slavery are a stain on the moral fabric of modern America that should be obliterated (along with the voices of anyone who disagrees). Media scribes and civil rights activists are happy to label those who oppose this erasure as racist crackers and toss them into the ninth ring of Hell along with the likes of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Ideologies espoused by groups like the KKK and the American Nazi Party are easily and justifiably condemned, but the roots of their appeal go far deeper than raw racist bigotry. Society is always better served by trying to understand its deviants, if only because how we deal with them may determine how many more of them there will be.
How quickly we seem to have forgotten about Hillbilly Elegy. J. D. Vance’s spare, poignant account of growing up in the world of the white not-so-privileged is still hanging around the NY Times best seller list. But the lessons it should have taught us about the thought processes of disaffected poor whites in America apparently didn’t get through.
Why do otherwise non-deviant people join groups that preach such a fundamentally loathsome worldview? Vance lays it out: They feel ignored and wronged by society. They see others being given preferential treatment, perceive others as getting more opportunity and respect. They feel persecuted and powerless. So they seek comfort in the approval of others of like mind (easy to find these days thanks to social media), and under the fiery rhetoric of a few truly perverted leaders they coalesce into the angry mobs the evening news loves to cover. Whether or not they resonate with the rest of us, their grievances can become the center of their lives. They need an outlet for their anger, and provocative – sometimes violent – behavior is all they can find. Sound like ISIS recruits (or the wild-eyed anarchists of the extreme Left)? Yeah, well we can despise them, too. But we can’t bomb our own citizens back to the Stone Age, and we can’t shut down their demonstrations without compromising our vaunted freedom of expression. As long as the perception persists that our society (and by extension our government), for whatever laudable purpose, is favoring some citizens at the expense of others they will be with us. A blessedly small fraction will be sporting hoods or swastikas, waving assault rifles and airing their anger and hatred for the TV cameras. Others will be marching quietly at the rear of the column. Most will be sitting passively by, waiting for their country and their government to acknowledge them, waiting to be understood.
For the record, the President has said a lot of stupid things. But he did not say that there was moral parity between the ideals of the two sides in the Charlottesville clash. He did say that both sides contributed to the violence, which they very definitely did. And the horrid actions of one insane individual should not be projected onto those lost souls who showed up with Tiki torches to call attention to what they saw as yet another attack on their self-worth.
Trump, as usual, was clumsy, inarticulate and insensitive in his reaction to the Charlottesville tragedy, but make no mistake. No shock and awe condemnation, from the President or anyone else, will do anything but worsen the conditions that sustain the Klan and its ilk. They will react with shock and awe of their own. We can’t seem to ignore them, even if robbing them of their audience were the best course. No thinking person would entertain a moral equivalency between militant white supremacy and those who courageously stand against it. But a young woman is dead today because hate was answered with hate in Charlottesville. If we make no more effort to arrive at a more nuanced way of looking at each other’s beliefs than what we have shown, she will probably have company.