Donald Trump just drew the ultimate false equivalency, arguing that anti-racist protestors and fascist white supremacists are equally culpable “sides” in the growing hatred in our country. After white supremacists and fascists bore torches through Charlotteville, Virginia shouting “sieg heil,” preaching anti-Semitism, and defending the spectre of the rebellious, racist confederacy that defended the enslavement of black Americans, protesters met a second march in broad daylight.
In the ensuing melee, people were injured, and a terrorist used a car to attack anti-racist marchers. The Virginia governor, the city’s mayor, and other public figures condemned the white supremacists, but Donald Trump tweeted a vague call for unity without singling out the perpetrators of racism, the defenders of a state built on slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan, a prominent domestic terrorist organization.
At a press conference, Trump proceeded to condemn hatred, but made it crystal clear that he viewed this hatred as something that emanated from many sides, encompassing anti-racist demonstrators and torch-bearing fascists alike.
It is extraordinary that there is any constituency in this country outside of the Klan’s meeting rooms that could view this statement with any credibility, or be led to believe that any equivalency could be drawn between these two groups.
One group of people are defending the country’s fundamental legal premise, a premise that is seldom realized in practice, but which has animated debates and progress for over two centuries. This group of people is arguing that all people should be equal before the law, and should be protected from hatred. This group of people is arguing that race should have no bearing on whether a person is considered a full member of society. To me, those ideas seem the fundamental opposite of hatred. They are a call, a demand, for equality, respect, and justice, things that are fundamental to a healthy society whose members can embrace one another and share in the fruits of their collective labors and investment. They are a call to replicate in the nation the love and solidarity we associate with strong families and communities.
On the other hand, we have a group of people calling for some kind of torchlit reclamation of their country, invoking the Nazi’s genocidal cry of “blood and soil,” something utterly incompatible with our constitutional and legal framework (understandable given that over half of Republicans would accept the murder of American democracy). This group of people has resurrected the vile anti-Semitism of interwar Europe (shouting “Jews will not replace us”), talks about “taking back the country,” and deploys not just fascist, but explicitly Nazi salutes, slogans, and frameworks.
Their very purpose is to create a mythology of white oppression in a country barely escaped from Jim Crow, still hampered by the hierarchy of economic opportunities created by slavery and segregation, and which still has tremendous disparities in the justice system (favorable to white Americans). They are deploying this mythology in order to argue that some citizens are more equal and deserving than others, and to excuse their demands for violence. Leading white supremacist David Duke suggested that he and the neo-nazis were rallying to ensure that Trump makes good on his pomises, a clear indication that the fascists see Trump as their candidate, and have been emboldened by his rhetoric and that of the Republican Party, whose members have called for the mass extermination of Muslims and an ethnic nationalist framework for American law and citizenship.
One of these groups, in other words, is about equality, acceptance, and ultimately love. The other is about division, inequality, and ultimately extermination. The fact that the president is so willing to fold them together tells us much about his loyalty to our country’s constitutional framework and the livelihoods and wellbeing of its citizens. It also tells us that he sees fascists as his allies, his base, and the future of the United States, and believes that Americans writ large are stupid enough to accept as much. That people entertain these false equivalencies are a sign of a dearth of critical thinking skills, respect for evidence, and knowledge of history, and just how dangerous the absence of these civic skills will prove to our country.