In the wake of last week’s tragedy in Charlottesville, Donald Trump, in his inimitable style, showed just what a ridiculously fragile grasp he has on the moral temperature of America, the country he ostensibly leads. With a 5 year-old’s understanding of moral conundrums, Trump could only see in terms of black and white (literally), and so this “binary-for-all-seasons” approach led him to very predictable places: equating the counter-protestors with the protestors, invoking the slippery-slope argument against the removal of Confederate statues from public places, and saying that there were “good people on both sides” of the protests. How can one defend such statements in the current context — indeed, in any context — and especially given the history of racial inequality in our country?
Well, I’m going to try defend at least some of what he said, but with this important caveat: Trump’s grasp of issues is so infantile as to be morally repugnant, but the point he was trying to make (if one gives him the benefit of the doubt) is not totally devoid of merit.
First, it would have been more accurate for him to have said that there were bad people on both sides of the protests (more on this in a minute). The alt-left (yes, there is such a thing) was wrong to incite violent attack against the alt-right during the march. We are, after all, to love not only our neighbor but our enemy, and largely because they’re often the same person. The French philosopher and agent provocateur Voltaire once said, “I may not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire, as the New World Encyclopedia so tersely puts it, “emphasized reason, despised democracy as the rule of the mob, and believed that an enlightened monarchy, informed by the counsels of the wise, was best suited to govern.” He may have been wrong about monarchies, but he was right about this: democracy, at its worst, is the rule of the mob, so that whatever the mob (read majority) thinks is right must be right, regardless of whether the defense of its position is vacuous, hypocritical, or internally inconsistent. At its best, democracy is the fragile balance between allowing speech, even if it is hateful, while protecting the rights and safety of those being hated. Our country has correctly erred on the side of allowing fringe groups and the venomous speech they espouse a wide berth. As long as they were peaceful, they had the right to express their views. But the minute we narrow that berth and begin to clamp down on such exhibits of free speech, however hateful their message might be (the Westboro Baptist Church is a case in point here), we begin to devolve into the mob mentality that Voltaire warned against, and then we’re no better than those regimes that extol “might is right” philosophies. Ironically, it’s precisely by allowing such fringe groups to peaceably assemble that we protect the rights of all of us to peacefully assemble. To deny the KKK and White Supremacists the right to march is to deny all our rights to march. Freedom can’t be a pick-and-choose proposition. Either we’re all free to speak, or none of us is free to speak.
As for bad people on both sides of the protests, this fact was widely reported. There were anarchists and hoodlums among the ranks of counter-protestors, and violence in any form is morally repugnant. The Christian faith affirms the essential brokenness of all humanity. Why do you call me good? asks Jesus. Only my Father in heaven is good. We all pretend, when vermin like the KKK show up, to be morally superior to them, but really, given the right circumstances, not a one of us is immune to hatred and prejudice. This isn’t to excuse such things, but simply to warn against assumptions of moral superiority on the part of those of us who don’t espouse such hateful beliefs. Our moral repugnance often takes the form of more subtle, passive evils like ignorance, apathy, and sentimentality.
Take the recent uproar over Confederate statues and monuments. Where were all these moralists a week ago? Were these statues and memorials just erected last Monday? Why the sudden outcry against these reminders of our racist past? Why complain now? Because it has become politically fashionable to do so, but the same folks who went around vandalizing these Confederate statues this past weekend were walking past them without a second thought on their cell phones the previous week. Where were all the morally outraged politicians and righteously indignant media personalities a week ago (a month ago? a year ago?) when they could have–and probably should have–been protesting these monuments and statues all along? They were nowhere to be seen or heard because it wasn’t politically expedient nor socially fashionable at that point to raise such concerns. Indeed, for the vast majority of Americans, it wasn’t even a distant thought. But now, of course, the entire electorate (well, those on the left and the middle) are up in arms over such an egregious blight on our national character. Talk about moral opportunism.
And finally, the slippery slope argument that Trump proffered forth is precisely appropriate in cases such as this one. The destruction of monuments around the country raise the honest question: why stop there? Shouldn’t we start renaming highways in our nation’s capital because they bear the name of Confederate soldiers and politicians? We renamed streets after Martin Luther King (and rightly so, in my opinion). Why can’t we do the opposite: un-name some streets? And shouldn’t we start renaming schools because they bear the moniker of former slave owners, because not to do so would send the wrong message? Perhaps we should even rename our nation’s capital and the state I call home because George Washington owned slaves, and while we’re at it, maybe we should toss out the Declaration of Independence because it was penned by a slave owner. Welcome to our Brave New World, where everything is writ in black and white and all questions of social ethics can be reduced to a slogan on a picket sign, and any who oppose you can be justifiably demonized, and once demonized, beaten into submission.
As for Trump, he’s no brave and principled opposer of the politically-correct juggernaut in this country. But what he said this past week was not entirely misguided. Poorly timed? Yes. Badly delivered. Absolutely. But for the reasons I’ve cited above, he wasn’t completely wrong. That said, the man is loathsome, an ethical and moral opportunist without a moral compass and no sense of decorum. He has about as much substance as an inert statue, and if we’re going to topple any monuments, we could do worse than begin with his presidency.