It was more than a century until the civil rights movement achieved more equality for African-Americans, but at least the national disgrace of slavery came to an end back then. Fast forward more than a century and a half to the current occupant of the White House, and the only similarity with his great Republican predecessor’s inspirational address is that Donald Trump is a great fan of short messages, mainly on Twitter.
Events in Charlottesville, Virginia, pushed persistent, ugly, bigoted and racist elements to the surface in American society. White supremacy has never been eradicated in the US. At best it has been marginalized. The idea of the superiority of white people, many of whom also claim to be devout Christians, has already led to one bloody civil war and threatens to tear apart the very fabric of American society. Irresponsibly, Trump has been courting these sentiments for the advancement of his own political agenda. More worryingly, his demeanor also strongly indicates that perceptually and emotionally he sympathizes with this ideology.
Any decent human being should have reacted with horror to the sight of the marching Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Their uniforms, and chants of “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” should have sent shivers down the spines of the entire nation and beyond. People who wear Nazi or KKK uniforms and use the language of those who committed genocide or burnt people alive because of their religion or ethnicity are contemptible. Flying, literally and figuratively, the Confederate flag is rejecting the very essence of racial equality advanced from the civil war of the 1860s to the civil rights movement in the 1960s and beyond.
For a number of these groups, anti-Semitism is added to their racism. The election of Donald Trump evidently gave them a boost. The president’s response to the events in Charlottesville should ring alarm bells, not only in the US but also for everyone around the world who cares about peaceful and respectful coexistence between people of different religions and ethnicities.
Making a moral equivalence between those who want to sow division in American society, embrace historical atrocities against minorities and apparently reintroduce them, and those who oppose them, is an outrageous and dishonest act by a US president. It was his duty to come out instantly with an unequivocal condemnation of the neo-Nazis and KKK agitators; not doing so was as good as endorsing them. Blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” is not only a typical distortion of truth by the US president, but encouragement for the alt-right to intensify their activity, including violence.
The current occupant of the White House and his distinguished 19th-century Republican predecessor are both noted for short messages, but there the similarities end.
It should not, however, come as a complete shock to anyone, bearing in mind that until last weekend Trump’s chief strategist was Steve Bannon, a founding member of the board of Breitbart News, a news outlet once described as pushing “racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic material into the vein of the alternative right.” Moreover, one of the first executive orders Trump issued as president was to ban Muslims traveling from six countries into the US. He did it without a shred of evidence of a threat coming from anyone from these countries.
It was an early indication and warning about the psyche of the new US president. It is all mixed in one large cauldron of bigotry that produces dangerous hatred and fragmentation. Strangely enough, some anti-Semitic groups support Israel because they assume it is an ally against Muslims. It is a trap that no Israeli should fall into, as it is the alt-right and their views that are everyone’s enemy. Mainly they are the enemy of the US and its values of freedom and liberty.
In his weak and ambiguous reaction to tragic events in Virginia, Donald Trump managed to unite all living former US presidents in condemnation of his behavior. Those who give him the benefit of the doubt see it as a result of being oblivious in his intellectual and historical ignorance to the implications of his stance on the alt-right. Others see him as being an apologist for them. I am afraid there is truth in both, which requires the checks and balances in the US system to stop this snowball from rolling before it is too late.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg