In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.
Cry, the beloved country
Does it really matter that Donald Trump wouldn’t specifically condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists whose rally on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent and led to the death of a woman when a driver rammed his car into a crowd? After all, presidents aren’t required to condemn every violent crime or act of savagery that occurs on US soil. Trump did say (via Twitter) that Americans “condemn all that hate stands for” and he did declare at an appearance in New Jersey that he “condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence, on many sides.” Isn’t that sufficient?
No, it isn’t.
And you don’t have to be a liberal or a Democrat or a Never Trumper to say so.
Trump loyalists will insist that the clamor over his vague rebuke to the lethal violence in Charlottesville is nothing more than the latest example of hostility to a president the left despises. Here’s why they’re wrong.
To begin with, slamming a car into a throng of civilians is terrorism and Trump has insisted repeatedly that terrorists must be called out and condemned by name.
“Anyone who cannot name our enemy,” Trump proclaimed in 2016, “is not fit to lead this country.” That, at any rate, is what he said about terrorism committed in the name of Islam. As a candidate for president, he often assailed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their unwillingness to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” He himself pointedly uttered the phrase over and over, including in his speech accepting the Republican nomination, in his inaugural address, and when he spoke to a joint session of Congress.
If a radical Islamist had plowed a vehicle into a crowd of Americans on Saturday, killing one and injuring 19, can anyone doubt that the president would have denounced the murderer with outraged particularity? Yet when murder and mayhem were provoked by the thuggish racists and anti-Semites of the alt-right fringe — a movement, it should be underscored, whose adherents are as hostile to American pluralism, democracy, and constitutional values as the jihadists — Trump suddenly became too even-handed and cautious to condemn the racists as racists. Instead he offered empty bromides: “We want to get this situation straightened out in Charlottesville and we want to study it; we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country, where things like this can happen.”
Note well: That wasn’t how the vast majority of mainstream Republicans and traditional conservatives reacted. If Trump was looking for an appropriate response to Saturday’s bloodshed, he could have followed the lead of Ted Cruz:
Or of Marco Rubio:
Our Founders fought a revolution for the idea that all men are created equal. The heirs of that revolution fought a Civil War to save our nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to that revolutionary proposition.
Nothing less is at stake on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, where a violent attack has taken at least one American life and injured many others in a confrontation between our better angels and our worst demons.
White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people.
Or of Orrin Hatch:
We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home. -OGH— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) August 12, 2017
Or of the renowned Southern Baptist pastor Russell Moore:
I am grieved to the core to think that this is the United States of America I am watching on live television right now. . . The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so.
But really: When has Trump ever needed coaching in denunciation? He is the most compulsive denouncer, condemner, and berater in the history of US presidential politics. From Mika Brzezinski to Judge Gonzalo Curiel, from Obamacare to CNN, from the mayor of New York to the Speaker of the House, from NATO to the Wall Street Journal, Trump has publicly slammed hundreds of targets, often in the most pointed and demeaning terms. The New York Times keeps a running tally of all the slurs and smears Trump has fired on Twitter alone: At last count, the total was up to 351.
But he will not criticize neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan agitators, and alt-right racists. (Nor will he criticize Vladimir Putin; that’s a topic for another day.) Had Trump directed at the Charlottesville goons even one-tenth of the contempt he has spewed at Rosie O’Donnell, he could have avoided much of this weekend’s controversy. He wouldn’t do it. Much of the country was dismayed by his reticence, but the white supremacists cheered him for it. Here’s a post from the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, liveblogging the day’s events:
3:46 PM: Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.
He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides!
So he implied the antifa are haters.
There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.
He said he loves us all.
Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him.
No condemnation at all.
When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.
Really, really good.
God bless him.
If the Daily Stormer is blessing you, you’re doing something very wrong.
As I write this morning, a chyron at the bottom of the TV screen says: “President expected to speak again on Charlottesville.” Perhaps Trump is finally prepared to offer a substantive repudiation of the alt-right cretins, with their flaming torches, their stiff-arm Hitler salutes, and their Aryan-style chants of “Blood and soil! Blood and soil!” But it wouldn’t shock me to see him double down. In February 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper tried without success to drag out of Trump an unequivocal condemnation of David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who had endorsed Trump’s candidacy. Trump dug in his heels, insisting he didn’t know anything about Duke — a ludicrous, pants-on-fire falsehood.
Is Trump actually sympathetic to the hatred of the alt-right fringe? For all the ugly things that have come out of the man’s mouth, it is hard to believe — well, hard for me to believe — that he genuinely sympathizes with fanatics who want America to be cleansed of Jews and of “race-mixing,” and who want the government to preserve and promote “white civilization.” Yet throughout his campaign, Trump winked at and played footsie with these vermin. He would not turn against them then; he won’t do it now.
The feeling is mutual. “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” an exultant Duke told an interviewer during the Charlottesville rally. “We voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
None of this is to deny that there is violence on the extreme left. About that, at least, Trump is right. Just weeks ago, a fervid Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire on congressional Republicans practicing for a baseball game; he severely wounded a member of Congress and sent two Capitol police officers to the hospital. Republican officeholders have received chilling murder threats, the conservative Family Research Council in Washington was targeted by a gunman in 2015, and radicals have ambushed and killed police officers. The so-called “antifa” movement openly endorses violence, and came to Charlottesville looking for a fight.
Is it necessary to forthrightly condemn left-wing violence and punish its fomenters? Absolutely. But it is much more important at this moment for Trump to personally break with the right-wing fringe and to decry its ugliness without hesitation or euphemism. Of course violent thuggery on both fringes is intolerable. So why focus on the alt-right? Because that’s the side that claims to act in the president’s cause. Trump and his allies didn’t spend the past two years playing nudge-nudge, wink-wink with progressive bigots and haters. Antifa zealots didn’t engage in menacing online intimidation and harassment of Trump’s critics. The president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, never boasted that his website was the platform for the alt-left.
The white-supremacist scum that spilled blood and broke bones in Charlottesville are in Trump’s camp. That’s why his refusal to excommunicate them is inexcusable.
“America is at a dangerous crossroads,” wrote David French for National Review, a leading conservative flagship, on Saturday night.
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.
Earlier this month, the Democratic governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, announced that he was going to change his party affiliation.
“Today I will tell you, as West Virginians: I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor,” Justice told a rally in Huntington. “So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
Justice is something of a serial party-switcher. Before 2015 he was a Republican; he flipped to the Democratic Party in February of that year, then announced that he was running for governor. Now, just seven months into his term, he is going back to the GOP. For Justice, party affiliation is little more than a campaign tactic. Or maybe a bargaining chip: A Bloomberg report suggests that as payback for switching the “D” after his name to an “R,” Justice wants the Trump administration to pay power plants a subsidy for West Virginia coal used to generate electricity. And if he were offered a hefty inducement to flip yet again? No doubt he’d be open to a new round of haggling.
The West Virginian is far from the first elected official to switch parties in mid-term. Among Democrats defecting to the GOP have been Mayor Norm Coleman of St. Paul, Minn., Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and Texas state representative Rick Perry. Elected officeholders jumping in the opposite direction have included Senators Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Wayne Morse of Oregon, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, all of whom ran for office and were sworn in as Republicans, but later bolted.
I’ve always thought that there is something ignoble about politicians who abandon the party that nominated them without first stepping down from the office they were elected to. After all, the vast majority of candidates in American politics run for office explicitly as members of a certain party. Other than their name, their party label is usually the only thing about them that’s specified on the ballot.
What Thurmond, Jeffords, Justice, and the others should have done is what Phil Gramm did in 1983. Gramm, a Democratic congressman from Texas, broke with his party over his support for President Reagan’s budget proposals. But he didn’t simply cross the aisle and take a seat with the other party. He resigned from Congress and announced that he would run for re-election to his old seat as a Republican. That showed integrity. The voters of Gramm’s district had chosen a Democrat to represent them in Congress, and Gramm believed it would be dishonorable not to let them decide if they would accept him as a Republican instead.
Few party-switching incumbents have followed Gramm’s lead. He was willing to abide by his constituents’ decision, whereas most switchers force their constituents to abide by their decision. Governor Justice is only the latest politician to thumb his nose at the voters who entrusted him with power.
A love affair with books
Want a respite from politics? Read Ann Hood’s slim but wonderful new book, Morningstar .
Hood today is a successful novelist and short story writer, but books were something she had to discover on her own. She was raised in a working-class Rhode Island household that valued family, work, and the American Dream — but not reading.
“I never saw him read a book at home,” Hood writes of her father, a high school dropout from Indiana who had served in the Navy. “In fact, I never saw anyone read a book at home.”
Morningstar is an affecting chronicle of Hood’s early encounters with books, and the profound impact that they had on her outlook and ambitions. It is structured around 10 books in particular, and the lesson she took away from each one. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, for example, was a lesson in “how to ask why.” The poet Rod McKuen’s Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows taught Hood “how to fall in love with language.” Robert Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment was an eye-opening tutorial in “how to have sex.” From Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Hood gleaned a lesson in “how to see the world.”
As a lifelong book reader, I don’t understand people in whose lives books play no role. I still own the first books I ever acquired — a set of paperbacks for first-graders about the great explorers — and I continue to acquire them with an appetite that never seems to flag. My chief problem with books is that I am such a slow reader, and that I have no hope of ever catching up on my must-read list. Hood’s recollections of the books she discovered as a girl are evocative and beguiling, and all the more moving because her parents never understood why books mattered to her. “I cannot believe you are wasting your money on a book,” her mother tells her when she was a preteen spending her allowance on Nancy Drew mysteries. “A book! Of all things!”
But by then Hood knew: There are no better things. Books are treasures. Morningstar is too.
Wild Wild Web
The L.A. County Coroner’s Office has a gift shop. All sales are final, of course.
How to slice a bagel and end up with two halves linked together.
He paid Best Buy with a stack of $2 bills. So the cashier called the cops.
Go figure: Eclipse Church, a 101-yr-old Episcopal house of worship in Nebraska, lies smack in the path of totality for next week’s solar eclipse.
Ice cream that doesn’t melt? What are the Japanese thinking?
Snailfish are the deepest-dwelling vertebrates on earth, and scientists have discovered a new one. It’s a cute little thing.
The last line
“A second, smashing blow hit him on the ear. Then all became quiet. There was the sea again with its sounds. A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and travelled sedately on, a shrug of eternity.” — Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)