This is what we’ve come to. The President of the United States believes that people run over by a terrorist, people beaten with clubs and poles, people threatened with “battle lines” of men in fatigues with shields and automatic weapons, people faced with Nazi salutes and white supremacist chants and racist flags, that the victims of hate are equally to blame for the violence in Charlottesville.
But it’s even worse than that: Besides using a term coined by online fascist trolls (“alt-left”), the President of the United States just equated statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with statues of George Washington. Think about that. The father of our country is not the same as the warriors who fought to secede from our country, who fought to preserve slavery, who fought the very idea of being part of the United States of America.
The fascists are cheering. This false equivalency gives cover to their hatred and emboldens them to continue fighting. It feeds a narrative that there are two equal sides on a grand conflict. This is the kind of rhetoric which feeds civil wars. This is the kind of rhetoric that emboldens hate groups, terrorists, mentally unstable people who believe they’re part of a battle for the soul of our country.
Moreover, this continues a classic tactic of dictators: Divide ordinary citizens into us-vs-them, rather than uniting us in a common cause, so that we can’t work together to combat the evils he has unleashed. That’s what Hugo Chavez did. That’s what Saddam Hussein did. That’s what Donald Trump is doing. He wants to paint a picture of America as diametrically opposed groups battling it out over ideas, rather than the truth, which is that we are all Americans, and that we should all be opposed to the once-fringe hate groups who are plaguing our democracy and threatening civil rights, Constitutional ideals, and half a century of enduring progress towards peace.
If there are two sides, they are not equal. There is a militant far-right, arming themselves in public, beating and murdering and terrorizing all who would oppose them, and the rest of us. There is a group that wants to “take back” a government which never belonged to them, to drive out immigrants, to eliminate Muslims and Jews, to reject feminism and gender equality, to demonize African-Americans in a way we haven’t seen in public in decades, and then there are the American people, the vast, vast majority, who can and should unite against this threat, to stand up to it and say, “We will not go backwards. We will not let our country be overwhelmed by hate. We will not give quarter to intolerance.”
And here is the President of the United States. And suddenly, the power is being taken away from us. The unifying tenets of our democracy, our diverse, complex, multicultural, evolving, beautiful nation, are no longer a thread binding us against a common evil, but rather a prize to be won in battle. Rather than leading his nation, our nation, against the scourge of bigotry and terrorism, this president has given hate groups a gift. He has invited them to the table. He has made them competitors, equal in his eyes, vying for the right to control this country.
It’s no wonder he equates Robert E. Lee with George Washington. In his mind, the defenders of our democracy and the ones who would seek to destroy it are the same.