“I think there is blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it,” President Donald Trump said about the violence at the Unite the Right rally last week in Charlottesville, Va. The statement has been roundly denounced by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Still, Trump’s words have some truth that we cannot simply wish away, and a broader context provides more clarity on where the president is right, and where he is not.
First, a recap of the events: Far-right groups — those who identify as white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, alt-right supporters and many others — gathered in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday and Saturday to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. As is typical at such events, counter-protesters gathered. The confrontation grew violent.
Such violence had occurred at previous rallies. What made what transpired in Charlottesville uniquely horrible was the act of a man with apparent neo-Nazi beliefs who rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decried the incident as an act of domestic terrorism.
Immediately after the events of Saturday, Trump made a statement blaming the “violence on many sides.” Politicians from both parties widely condemned Trump for his lack of directness about who was to blame for the violence. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, tweeted: “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.” Another Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, tweeted similar sentiments: “Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists, and this was domestic terrorism.”
Two days later, Trump changed his stance, echoing the language used by Hatch and Gardner: “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.” However, to the consternation of his staff, Trump reversed course the following day, saying, “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” Again, Trump drew criticism from prominent Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He tweeted: “I don’t understand what’s so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn’t be defended.”
Is such criticism justified? After all, we know that it wasn’t only the far-right protesters who came armed with guns, sticks, shields, helmets and torches. Some counter-protesters had sticks, helmets and shields. Clearly, people on both sides were prepared for violence. A large majority of counter-protesters marched peacefully, but some came from the antifa movement. Antifa refers to anti-fascism, and many antifa members endorse violent tactics to oppose extreme conservative ideologies, known as Nazi punching. Indeed, video evidence and firsthand accounts of the events in Charlottesville demonstrate both sides participated in the violence.
So while we may vehemently disagree with white nationalism, racism and neo-Nazism — all of which I find reprehensible — we need to acknowledge that both sides were at fault. Trump is right about that much.
Where Trump is wrong is in his failure to strongly condemn the act of domestic terrorism, both in his initial remarks and in his backtracking three days later. Clashes between far-right supporters and antifa members happen with unfortunate regularity. Such clashes are deplorable, as violence has no place in our political system. One of our country’s founding principles, freedom of speech, is epitomized by the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Protesters from both sides crossed the line in Charlottesville, and they deserve proportionate criticism and punishment. Commentators who fail to acknowledge this will lose credibility from those who care about the facts, as opposed to just scoring political points. Of course, the most egregious act came from the neo-Nazi supporter who rammed his car into the crowd. In an ideal world — one in which commentators both aim to speak the truth and prevent future violence — their remarks would proportionately criticize both sides while placing the brunt of censure on the terrorist act.
Through emails and tweets, you can make a difference by challenging commentators to take the Pro-Truth Pledge to commit to truth in their commentary. You can also take the pledge to show your own commitment to truth above party politics.