It is not the responsibility of the president of the United States to make specific statements every time a gang of KKK cretins marches up and down a town square. I fear that we’ll never be rid of such people, and in normal times our political leaders are so far removed from hateful movements that no reasonable person could believe they had the slightest sympathy for that kind of vicious bigotry. But today was different, the alt-right movement is different, and this president is different.
Today, a person died. A car rammed into a crowd of left-wing protesters, sending bodies flying across the street. I won’t embed the footage, but it looks horrible, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it was intentional. The car rammed the crowd at speed, backed up, and sped away. This horrific incident capped a day of street brawls after hundreds of alt-right activists, neo-Confederates, and outright Nazis marched together to express and defend their “blood and soil” white nationalism. It was a disgusting and reprehensible display.
It would be much easier to write off this small band of racists if they weren’t also part of a larger alt-right movement that was responsible for an unprecedented wave of online threats, intimidation, and harassment throughout the 2016 campaign season. Journalists, writers (including me and my family), and ordinary citizens were targeted with obscene and threatening images, racist messages, “doxing,” and sometimes promises of physical violence — all for the sin of criticizing Trump.
Violence then started to spill into the real world. A man wielding a sword hunted and killed a black man in New York City. A member of an “alt-Reich Nation” Facebook group killed another black man in Maryland. A man opened fire on two immigrants at a bar in Kansas, killing one. A white supremacist in Portland murdered two men on a train who intervened when he harassed a Muslim and her black friend. And that’s not an exclusive list. Meanwhile, the online hate campaigns roll on.
Incredibly, key elements of the Trump coalition, including Trump himself, gave the alt-right aid and comfort. Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, proclaimed that his publication, Breitbart.com, was the “the platform for the alt-right,” Breitbart long protected, promoted, and published Milo Yiannopolous – the alt-right’s foremost “respectable” defender – and Trump himself retweeted alt-right accounts and launched into an explicitly racial attack against an American judge of Mexican descent, an attack that delighted his most racist supporters.
In other words, if there ever was a time in recent American political history for an American president to make a clear, unequivocal statement against the alt-right, it was today. Instead, we got a vague condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” This is unacceptable, especially given that Trump can be quite specific when he’s truly angry. Just ask the Khan family, Judge Curiel, James Comey, or any other person he considers a personal enemy. Even worse, members of the alt-right openly celebrated Trump’s statement, taking it as a not-so-veiled decision to stand against media calls to condemn their movement.
America is at a dangerous crossroads. I know full well that I could have supplemented my list of violent white supremacist acts with a list of vicious killings and riots from left-wing extremists – including the recent act of lone-wolf progressive terror directed at GOP members of the House and Senate. There is a bloodlust at the political extremes. Now is the time for moral clarity, specific condemnations of vile American movements – no matter how many MAGA hats its members wear – and for actions that back up those appropriately strong words.
As things stand today, we face a darkening political future, potentially greater loss of life, and a degree of polarization that makes 2016 look like a time of national unity. Presidents aren’t all-powerful, but they can either help or hurt. Today, Trump’s words hurt the nation he leads.