We have apparently forgotten what it means to be presidential and exercise national leadership.
In his own (admittedly unique) way, Donald Trump did exactly that on Saturday, 12 August.
I wrote about this yesterday, and rather than rehash the matter entirely will start by quoting from that post:
President Trump was right about two points he made in his comments on the Charlottesville event today. One, Obama didn’t create this event, and neither did Trump. The point is a warning to both the left and the right to not try to justify excess or violence with complaints about the politics (or the people) we don’t like. It is an essential point, and Trump made it with admirable simplicity.
Two, there is divisive racism and hatred on both sides. Trump condemned both. He was right to. Antifa, and all the other organized radicals who go around insinuating themselves into the candlelight vigils and legitimate, peaceful assemblies of others, are every bit as vicious, extreme, and unacceptable as Nazis and the KKK.
The hand-wringing and lockstep criticism levied at Trump’s comments are not surprising. (Howard Portnoy has a nice take on the Washington Post’s pro bono rewrite of the president’s script.) The mainstream media were always going to frame anything Trump said as an indictment of him, and their narrative can therefore be dismissed at the outset. No matter what Trump said, the media response would have been the same.
Even if Trump had said what the media have spent the last 36 hours demanding – “White supremacists are committing domestic terrorism!” – that would have won him no applause. The MSM would simply have accused him of saying it too late, when the whole thing was his fault.
But the whole thing was not his fault, and he was under no obligation, political or moral, to address the implication that it was.
This is what Trump’s critics on the right don’t seem to get. It’s why they have failed so consistently at leadership in recent years. They seem to believe that leadership is a matter of toting up all the narratives in everyone else’s head, and constantly feeding those narratives by wearing themselves out to have a pleasing (or suitably defensive) “answer” for each one.
See Marco Rubio and John McCain , for example:
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 12, 2017
Senator McCain’s tweet, in particular, amounts to storming San Juan Hill to take down a giant straw man.
White supremacists aren’t patriots, they’re traitors- Americans must unite against hatred & bigotry
Sure enough. I’m looking around behind me for the fang-toothed devil-rat who thought white supremacists were patriots. He’s got to be back there somewhere, because I’m sure not the audience McCain can possibly be aiming for.
Nothing is so widely and comprehensively repudiated in the United States of America as white supremacism. I despise the ideology of white supremacism, and I don’t doubt that evil-intentioned white supremacists exist. We saw some of them on Saturday, in KKK regalia and toting swastikas. But white supremacism is not even close to being America’s big problem today.
Railing against it on cue, in the exact terms of the left’s false narrative – i.e., that “white supremacism” is the problem threatening America – serves no purpose other than to bolster the left’s false narrative.
Trump didn’t do that. That’s why the media are so upset. Trump did condemn the white supremacists and their bigotry and hatred; he just didn’t do it in the particular terms that advance the left’s narrative.
But in his comments on Charlottesville, Trump went beyond declining to bolster that narrative. He did well to refrain from bolstering it, and it was important not to give it oxygen. He picked his premises and spoke from the narrative in his head, not the media’s and/or the left’s. That’s good leadership in itself.
But the most presidential aspect of his comments is that he used them to shape the narrative — not react to someone else’s — and shape the people’s expectations. And he did it the right way.
There were, indisputably, two sides protesting on Saturday, and violence came from both of them. For America’s good, what needed to be emphasized was that the violence against the civil order is what is unacceptable, no matter which side it comes from.
There is no acceptable social setting in which one side of a political argument is privileged to “act out” against the civil order that everyone depends on, because of that side’s claim to victimhood, righteousness, or both.
Antifa demands exactly that privilege – as have the Occupy movement, the BLM movement (in some venues and cases), the “anti-globalist” movement that comes out to haunt the G7/G20, and some fringe “environmentalist” and animal rights groups. In the past, Nazis and the KKK have done similar things, although in recent years their public demonstrations have been non-violent, if grossly offensive in terms of rhetoric and signage.
If Trump wanted to follow Obama’s lead – i.e., by sympathetically addressing the grievances of one side in the protest dynamic – he might have acknowledged that some of the people in Charlottesville this weekend weren’t white supremacists, Nazis, or KKKers, but were merely there to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, because they don’t think that’s fair or right. They think it’s going too far down a dangerous political path, to try to symbolically erase the past, or proclaim that one faction holds an all-purpose veto over the public’s memories.
If he actually were Obama, on the other hand, Trump might have decried the Nazis and white supremacists specifically, implying that they were to blame for all of the violence, and suggesting that he understood and sympathized with the motives of the Antifa thugs.
But Trump wisely chose to not bring any of that in – because it would have been going off on an un-leaderly tangent. The president is there to establish an environment of fair expectations, and stand up for the good of all the people. He rebuked everybody who was out demonstrating provocatively in Charlottesville when fights broke out and a woman got killed. He said, in essence, that America stands against that – which is true, and is what matters – and we’re not going to have it.
We are for ordered liberty, and we accept its constraints. We reject the premise of radicals that there is some form of freedom or justice served by naming social enemies as an excuse for committing mayhem.
No matter who you are or what your cause, you can’t feel that Trump tacitly condones your disruptive violence after hearing his comments on Saturday. That’s what a presidential leader needed to achieve. It’s just not what the media left wanted to hear.