Published in Al Ahram Weekly on 24/8/2017
In the wake of his remarks on the Charlottesville demonstrations in the United States, US President Donald Trump should stop flirting with disaster and rein in his rhetoric, writes Hany Ghoraba
US President Donald Trump’s first year in office has been a bumpy ride from the day he was sworn in. It seems that the American president is basking in the near daily confrontations and controversies he instigates, or that he likes to get drawn into such confrontations with the mainstream media, politicians and other heads of state.
He even finds joy in escalating these confrontations whenever he gets the chance. Throughout his first few months in office he has managed to alienate a sizeable segment of his supporters and encouraged his older enemies to sharpen their spears.
However, matters took a different turn with the recent racial tensions that took place in Charlottesville in Virginia. A violent group of US white supremacists marched across the town of Charlottesville protesting against the decision to remove the statues of US Civil War Confederate commanders. Accompanied with Nazi slogans, swastika flags, guns and torches, the so-called “Unite the Right” movement aimed to strike fear into the heart of American society by sending the message that the Ku Klux Klan and other neo-Nazi groups are alive and well in America.
Trump’s first response to the ensuing clashes that resulted in the killing of one woman and the injuring of 19 others was nothing short of a political disaster. He equated the white supremacists and those opposing them by saying that “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
This irresponsible statement has stirred waves of controversy across the United States as this is the first time in American history that a president has even considered comparing groups like the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups with other groups in American society. These groups were and should stay the pariahs of American society, but Trump has given their actions some legitimacy.
He failed to condemn the actions of the white supremacists only to show up two days later to condemn them by name after a deluge of criticisms from all sides including from his own Republican Party, which said that Trump had crossed the line.
Admittedly, the far-left used violence against the white supremacists in the days that followed, but to place matters in perspective they did not start the killings of peaceful protestors and neither did they shout racial chants while carrying torches in order to strike fear into peaceful citizens of the United States.
Racial clashes are not uncommon in the US as there was a sharp rise in their occurrence during the former Obama administration when white supremacists attempted to revive their vile activities by protesting against former president Barack Obama’s controversial economic and social reforms such as on healthcare and others.
Throughout his presidential election campaign and his eight-month presidency, Trump has not made efforts to distance himself from the far right, alt-right and white supremacist groups, which he feels should be part of his constituency. Ku Klux Klan former grand wizard and white supremacist David Dukes was among Trump’s most ardent supporters throughout his campaign. Through his radio show and writings, Dukes aimed to convince his racist followers that Trump was the saviour of the white race in the United States and therefore all white US voters should rally behind him.
Trump has seemed to be unwilling to part with this vile segment of American society for political reasons. However, as a result of the disastrous speech he delivered on 12 August, he felt compelled to condemn them by name two days later in a desperate attempt to contain the damage caused by the speech. Even so, he made things worse by entering into a bizarre debate with the media by calling a group of white supremacists who were protesting against the removal of the statues on that day and who were joined by alt-right groups as “very fine people”.
Trump then went on to compare racist alt-right groups with alt-left ones who utilise violent tactics against the former group. He thus intentionally or unintentionally tried to clear the name of groups that have been a menace over recent years and have wanted to destabilise American society. These alt-right groups have been attempting to mask the fact that they are watered-down white supremacists, even if they do not have the standard paraphernalia of skinhead haircuts and swastika tattoos.
Aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed. The counter-protests that faced the white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Virginia were peaceful before they were attacked by those intentionally driving cars into them. These counter-protests that faced the neo-Nazis were a natural reaction by concerned US citizens witnessing their country moving towards racial violence, segregation and bigotry.
The Charlottesville incident is a public-relations disaster for Trump, who is still oblivious to the gravity of his words for the nation and how they have stirred up further anger and possibly more racial and social violence. The US president is still treating press conferences as if they were part of his former reality TV show “The Apprentice”. He seems to be incapable of taking responsibility for his words and actions. This strange attitude towards the press and the opposition in the US is becoming uncontrollable, and it is now also hurting the presidential office.
Last week’s sacking of Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon may be a step in the right direction for a president who remains on a collision course with all the groups in the nation short of the alt-right movement whose twisted ideology Bannon had adopted. Trump may now do much better without Bannon in the White House because Bannon’s heavy baggage filled with anti-Semitic and white nationalist rhetoric mixed with alt-right views was an enormous liability for the president.
With every speech Trump delivers, the situation becomes more aggravated, however, and the rifts within the nation grow deeper. Trump has managed to alienate even ardent Republicans, who are now scrambling to contain the damage he has caused by his improvised speeches. The party is now in a conundrum, as Trump has ignored the norms that defined the Great Old Party. They Republican leadership seems to realise what Trump has been missing — that there is nothing American or patriotic in defending white supremacists when the great US president Abraham Lincoln fought a brutal Civil War against their ilk that ended slavery in the United States and paved the way for a great nation to rise.
Moreover, there is nothing patriotic or American about being a neo-Nazi when the United States fought a brutal war to stop Nazi aggression in World War II costing over 400,000 American lives at the most conservative estimates.
Should the president still plan to attain the goals he has set for himself and deliver the vast promises he made during his presidential campaign, he would be strongly advised to change his provocative rhetoric, which has tainted his entire presidency since January 2017. What is at stake here is a superpower on the brink of massive social and racial divisions that are poised to be exacerbated in upcoming months should the situation remains unchanged.
Running the United States is a far more daunting and complex task than a reality TV show or even any company. Trump seems to believe that America is part of his Trump Organisation and that he can boss it around as he wishes. It would be advisable for him to cease using Twitter to broadcast his provocative and controversial remarks, since these stir more waves of criticism from the media and population. Trump should stop flirting with disaster and rein in his provocative rhetoric as he is no longer an independent businessman but instead is the president of the United States.
The old proverb that “speech is silver, but silence is golden” is one that Trump needs to treat as a motto if he plans to continue as president of the United States.
Original Post in Al Ahram Weekly :