Around the first of the year I heard from someone I met only casually during my newspaper days. He sent me a note online. His point of contention was the belief by vocal critics who oppose then brand new President Donald Trump that all Trump supporters are racists. I know this person a little – as well as a newspaper editor can know anyone they haven’t really met. I never once got a bad vibe at all from our conversations or email. And believe me, after 30 years in newspapers I know bad vibes when I experience them.
Here’s the key graph in what he wrote to me.
“Yes, I voted for Trump. That was not an endorsement of him. It was because I rejected the candidate on the Democratic ticket. (I voted in the primary for Kasich.) We simply had awful candidates for the presidency. I voted 90 percent democratic in NC elections. I am an unaffiliated voter, but am branded as a misogynistic racist. Sad.”
Later in the day, after thinking about if for a short while, the writer sent this note.
“If I was offensive in my message earlier today I apologize. These are trying times for our country, I have many friends who think very different and I love them all. Please forgive me.”
Today, approximately seven months later, these are still trying times for our country and the heat gets cranked up every single day — aided and abetted by the media — social, antisocial and those who formerly occupied the mainstream, something that doesn’t really exist anymore. And of course throw the president into the mix too. I’ve had bad vibes from him since the 1980s. Tuesday he proved himself to be exactly the person I thought him to be decades ago. Meet our unmasked commander in hatred.
First let me say that I didn’t find the author’s original message offensive in the least. Far from it. I’ve seen much worse in the social mediasphere in which we seem mindlessly and endlessly trapped. There is a ton of bile and rage on both sides of this contentious mess we find ourselves in as a result of the worst presidential election and candidates in U.S. history. Over the weekend it exploded again in Charlottesville, Va. in one of ugliest racial flashpoint clashes between opposing points of view in recent memory — this in a nation founded upon the principles of free speech and assembly and on the campus of a major university founded by Thomas Jefferson.
How the hell did we get here of all places?
I’ve mulled the question posed by the letter writer many times over the past year. I know and am friends with a lot of Trump supporters – some in my own family. I know and am friends with a lot of Clinton or Democratic supporters – some in my own family. And I know and am friends with people who voted for neither one. They feel no remorse about it and they shouldn’t.
Yes, in an election we all make decisions good or bad. Then usually we accept the consequences until things slide off the rail. Some believe this slide began even before Trump’s inauguration. I argue that it started with his winning the Republican nomination. That alone was the most stunning, disturbing and unlikely political event of the past 40 years. Trump has been a race-baiting lout and babbling publicity hound since the 1980s. He has the business acumen of a dirt dobber and the political sense of a sloth. And while it’s true that all politicians skirt the truth (OK, lie), for Trump lying is both hobby and avocation. He does it more than anyone else who ever occupied the job. Do I think Trump himself is a racist? I had no true idea until Tuesday when he backtracked two previous statements about the events in Charlottesville which involved a combination of white nationalists, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, Nazis (or other fascists), skinheads and a few more hate groups of that ilk. Anti-fascist protesters who oppose hate groups were there, too and tempers flared turning into violence.
First Trump made a tepid both-sides-were-involved-here kind of statement. On Monday in a scripted speech he sharply criticized the hate groups — the kinds of people America joined Allied Forces in World War II to defeat and keep the world safe for decent people and democracy. On Tuesday he did a 180 and criticized the anti-fascist protesters and said the hate groups did include many good people — I assume he was referring to the supporters of protecting Confederate statues / monuments who contend they believe in heritage, not hate. If that’s true, then they must shun and fight those hate groups that join their fight. Anyone who enables a hate group gets the fleas, ticks and other vermin that come with them. Enablers of hate are just as guilty as purveyors of hate.
Trump’s shocking turnaround on Tuesday, which shouldn’t have been such a surprise, was a bizarre and twisted display of illogic for a leader of the free world. He sided with fascist hate mongers in just about the most un-American point of view imaginable.
So now we know, the president of the United States is an enabler and endorser of racists and is therefore himself a racist.
But what of Trump’s more moderate (read normal) supporters? He has many who might not like him but side with him when push comes to shove. Where do they fit in this puzzle?
I am aware that many grow tired of the labeling my letter writer mentions. I find labels inaccurate and confining. Few things are that, well, black and white. I know some who voted for Trump because they thought him to be the only conservative in the race and would make the right-leaning picks for the Supreme Court. Other Trump backers thought he would be good for the economy. Many just didn’t like Clinton or Democrats and any alternative would be preferred. And there are those who just wanted someone outside of politics and tuned out the rest.
But what people in those groups don’t fully grasp – and this I do believe – is that while they’re not racists themselves, a vote for Trump can be seen as tacit endorsement of his often racist and divisive rhetoric. The abhorrent groups he endorsed on Tuesday are among his core — his most ardent — supporters. Trump didn’t invent racism. It existed before he arrived on the scene and will continue after he’s ushered off the stage. But there is little doubt he parlayed his campaign rhetoric into a horrifying coalition of hate groups who now feel emboldened to emerge from the shadows. Such groups, thought to be buried in shallow graves or pushed to the margins of history now feel their time has returned. And with help from a news media too eager to cover such antics, it has. Hate activity nationwide has only grown in the months since Trump’s political rise.
Reports of harassment of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Muslim-Americans, LGBQ American and anyone else of color or different seem to crop up daily these days. Klan rallies are being held in communities again. When I was in newspapers we seldom gave Klan marches any coverage. That was the advice given by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Under its Klan Watch, the SPLC cautioned that covering Klan rallies only gives these vile organizations the exposure they crave. Usually we sent a reporter to monitor rallies in case something happened and reported nothing if nothing occurred.
The clash over the weekend in Virginia is another symptom and the most troubling one to date. It has been called the largest gathering of racist, white nationalist groups in decades. They arrived agitated, many armed and ready for a fight at the first provocation. A group of counter-protesters raised the temperature enough to get a violent response from people prone to violent behavior. When a 20-year-old racist drove a car into the crowd, he killed one, a young woman named Heather Heyer, and injured 20.
Racism has been an unattractive part of human nature for decades. Its popularity rises and falls due to turbulent cultural, political and social circumstances combined with a lack of leadership, education, faith and manners. More then 20 years of overt and partisan political division cleared the path for the road ultimately paved by Donald Trump and a tiny but core group of insidious supporters who become more horrifyingly visible each day. Only this kind group would do what it did Tuesday: Declare the nauseating and deadly events in Charlottesville a victory and pledge to be even more active in the days, weeks and months ahead. They are within their rights to do so. Free speech is a benchmark of our system of government and culture. But people are equally free to challenge those beliefs without fear of violence.
What happened in Charlottesville was really a major loss for human decency, one we can’t allow to be repeated and further erode our humanity.
So back to the original question: Is if fair for all Trump voters to be branded as racists? No, it isn’t. Not at all. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. The majority are not of that ilk. Most are our friends, neighbors and co-workers. They are ordinary Americans like people who did not support Trump for president. Only a small vocal portion of Trump’s staunchest and most strident backers fall into the racist category. It is patently unfair and inaccurate to say otherwise.
But it’s equally true that ignoring the racist, violent and hate-mongering behavior of those around us is also wrong. Racism, hatred and violence must be repudiated and its practitioners shunned. Finding our way forward together as a more unified nation takes that first important step. Because enabling racism, hate and violence is tantamount to accepting it.
And that is unacceptable.