This is a guest post by Martin Sewell, a retired solicitor.
When the USA elected Donald Trump to be their new President, it was, to a significant degree, because he had the merit of not being a regular politician. Unfortunately that came with an obvious demerit – he was not a regular politician.
Nothing illustrates this more acutely than the way he has conducted himself over the disturbances in Charlottesville, Virginia, where some of America’s nastiest white supremacists showed up in support of those who object for different reasons to the removal of a statue of Southern Civil War hero General Robert E Lee.
White supremacists marching in modest numbers is nothing new. They have marched throughout the times of former presidents and this rarely made international news. “Why give the oxygen of publicity to losers in the cultural war?” was the unspoken question for many years, and many of us were happy enough with that approach.
Interestingly, for all the talk of American extremists, it is important to note that the far right has prospered far better in Europe than it ever has across the Atlantic, and that may well be because of the success of Dr Martin Luther King and the movement for non-violence which he led. He did not live to see ‘the promised land’, but his prophecy was realised with the election of the United States’ first black President and the fact that it was celebrated by his supporters and opponents alike. It is a cause for continued optimism.
Dr King’s achievement was greater than black empowerment – though that in itself is a great and sufficient achievement. He also demonstrated that even in a country that has an entrenched culture of gun ownership, the principles of non-violence can and do succeed. A second major part of his legacy was his capacity to win opponents to his side. The President who signed much off the Civil Rights legislation into law – Lyndon Baines Johnson – was himself a tough and corrupt political operator who was known to salt his speech with racial epithets and behave in a thoroughly coarse manner towards women on his staff.
Even more surprising, non-violent protest – described by Dr King’s inspiration, Gandhi, as ‘the sword that heals’ – resulted in Governor George Wallace attending a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. He had previous stood on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol declaring: “Segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever”, and now here he was unequivocally apologising for his former opinions and actions. That was remarkable to those who remember the times.
These are not isolated examples. The Mayor of Selma, Alabama, whose chief of police had ordered the infamous brutal police assault on unarmed protestors at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was re-elected by a largely black electorate nine times after that infamous police riot.
Across the South, change and reconciliation happened. It is not perfect nor remotely yet finished, but when South Carolina sends its first black senator to Washington, you know the tide of history continues to flow in the right direction.
These are fascinating illustrations of how reconciliation can be made to work when the case is built upon gospel principles, as Dr King did. He knew that you cannot build Christ’s kingdom over the broken bones of your opponents.
Sadly, when one forgets history, one is destined to repeat it. That not only applies to the failures but to the successes also.
The churches of Virginia have not forgotten. They attended at Charlottesville peacefully to bear witness against the white supremacists. They issued a plain statement which is entirely congruent with what Dr King taught them. Two sentences of it make an important point with the unambiguous condemnation of the racists:
Angry resisters are more than ready to meet their violence with violence.
There will be more rallies and more divisions. We must be prepared to meet those challenges, not with violent confrontation, but by exemplifying the power of love made known in concrete action.
This is not a million miles away from what President Trump meant when he said, “I think there is blame on both sides.”
I think it is plain that he was not aggregating the peaceful demonstrators, which included many clergy, with the Antifa quasi-militia which showed up masked and intent on casting the first stone.
The Virginia Bishops are plainly better politicians than Donald Trump. Nobody doubts their anti-racist credentials, yet they still organised and expressed their statement in accordance with the zeitgeist. In the modern world, a politician cannot take his anti-racist credentials for granted, and so we have seen a succession of GOP big beasts ‘getting with the programme’ and regrettably having to show the President how it has to be done.
Yet there is an absurdity about some of this. Nobody who knows US politics thinks Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz is a racist, but they and others still have to take no chances.
What is doubly odd is that nobody who knows Donald Trump sensibly believes him to be a neo-Nazi sympathiser. He has lived prominently in the public eye for decades: he is an anti-establishment New York liberal who donated to the Clinton election campaigns and invited them to his wedding, which they accepted. Throughout her recent presidential bid, Hillary Clinton carefully attacked Trump’s supporters, but never the man.
So why was a man who is usually so sure-footed and knows that in the modern world perception trumps truth, so clumsy in managing his message?
There are two possibilities.
He is a businessman whose career has been in construction. His appeal was founded on jobs, infrastructure and business. He sees jobs and business as the answers to the problems of the poor and is thus everything that the Antifa crowd detests. He has seen them murdering police officers (many from ethnic minorities) and destroying communities in Ferguson and Berkeley, where they were shutting down free speech. They are desperate for him and his party to be Neo-Nazis because then they don’t then have to wait for an anti-statue protest or for a police arrest to turn bad. He was thus primed to go after them early, based on their past history.
The alternative is that he was ‘playing to his base’, but not a base that has any truck with racism. It is the base that elected him to do his duty in accordance with his oath of office in which he promised to uphold the Constitution. The Bishops statement gets it spot on:
- All individuals and groups in this country have a right to free speech. All have a right to their convictions and to speak those convictions publicly. Individuals and groups do not have a right to assault, attack or cause violence against anyone else based on their views – or for any reason.
- The issue of removing Confederate monuments is a complex one with a number of legitimate points of view. Reasoned discussion and decision-making processes are called for. Using these points of view to justify violence is wrong and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.
- Many Americans lovingly cling to their heritage, which provides them with pride and identity. Some suggest that the white people who gathered to protest in Charlottesville were there to proclaim and protect Southern heritage. However, Nazi and fascist flags, symbols, salutes, slogans and uniforms are not and never have been part of the heritage and history of the American South. We as a nation suffered over a million American casualties in order to defeat the Nazi regime. We have been clear as a nation that the Nazi worldview is evil, and we must remain clear.
What is remarkable, however, is that the Bishops’ summary of what needs to be done begins by upholding the constitutional position. It addresses the violence of the counter protestors, and only gets to racism in the third paragraph. They are not criticised for that, and nor should they be. The statement is a complete piece: all parts of it are important.
These Bishops know and understand their flocks well. They appreciate that not everyone who objects to the removal of statues wants to go back to the bad old days of Jim Crow laws – laws which some of them played a role in removing.
Donald Trump has none of the smooth craftsmanship of those who said much the same, but with greater polish and in the right order.
So what about the monuments?
During the slide into war, Robert E Lee wrote of his anguish. He was offered the command of both Northern and Southern Armies. He opposed the secession and only sided with the South because he could not take up arms against his kinfolk and neighbours. He confided in a letter that if he owned 4,000 slaves (he personally owned none) he would willingly have freed them all to save his nation from the horrors of war. He apparently has to go.
Yet what of Abraham Lincoln?
His Emancipation Proclamation only extended to slaves in enemy territory; for pragmatic reasons, those in Federal States had to wait.
It gets worse.
On 22nd August 1865, Lincoln wrote to the New York Times editor Horace Greeley:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
Should the Lincoln Memorial’s primacy of place be revised in light of his equivocation, which was plainly even greater than that of Donald Trump?
One wonders when the Antifa folk might get round to seeking the renaming of the 56 infrastructure projects named after Senator Robert Byrd in his home a state of West Virginia, where he was famed for his skills at securing Federal Funds. Because of this, he was known as the ‘King of Pork’, but he was rather more infamously known as the Kleagle and Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. He became Leader of the Democrats in the Senate and upon his death was described by Hillary Clinton as “a true American original, my friend and mentor”.
So if Robert E Lee must fall, must not Robert Byrd also go? Or will his Democrat status secure him a pass in the eyes of the new intolerant puritans of the Alt-Left?
This might be a good time to decide. The Democrats need to win such states as West Virginia, and Donald Trump’s energy policies have just secured the livelihoods of its coal miners. This is so worrying for the State’s Governor Jim Justice that he has just jumped ship and joined the GOP.
Maybe Trump will survive after all.