Jessica Tarlov is a Democratic strategist, the senior director of research at Bustle Digital Group, and a Fox News contributor. Here, she responds to President Trump’s statement placing “blame on both sides” of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., which left one dead and 19 injured after an alleged Neo-Nazi rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protestors on Saturday.
We are taught that there are two sides to every story. I would say that there are two sides to most.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s important to listen to the other side when there actually is one. It’s discourse, and I do it often myself as a liberal commentator on Fox News. I acknowledge the other side and say, “That’s an interesting point, but I see it this way because of X, Y, and Z.” There are two sides to a case about taxes. It’s worth listening to differing accounts of police-citizen clashes. I even understand those who don’t like some of the messaging of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think they’re often wrong, but that’s a conversation you can have.
That’s the difference here: There is no other valid side when it comes to opposing Neo-Nazism and white supremacy.
After Saturday’s attack in Charlottesville, Donald Trump should have immediately called out white supremacists and Neo-Nazis by name. Instead, he condemned the violence on “both sides.” The importance in choosing sides is to make sure that the American people know where you stand. Now, there are too many Americans who are confused as to whether Trump actually thinks there are members of white-supremacist groups who are “very fine people,” which is how he referred to some protestors at a press conference on Tuesday.
When Barack Obama refused to talk about Islamic terrorism in those terms, he was trying to ensure that the moderate Muslim population was not going to be ostracized, a strategy that George W. Bush used as well. But Trump had no rationale for protecting any Neo-Nazi because there is not one moderate in the bunch.
Saying “both sides” is incredibly damaging and, frankly, irrelevant. This has nothing to do with Republican versus Democratic ideology. Trump may think in terms of right versus left, but this is an issue about humanity and hatred. These groups are not actually affiliated with any mainstream political party. It’s about where you come down on fundamental American moral values—that we’re all created equal.
What motivated Trump’s wording then? I think he’s afraid of losing even one person who likes him. There were just a few hundred Neo-Nazis who showed up in Charlottesville. There was no indication that there was widespread American support for what they were out there doing or for their beliefs. They are not Donald Trump’s base. They are not the white working class. They are an extremist, hateful group. The only people Trump would have alienated with a stronger statement are people who think blacks and Jews are inherently lesser than.
Still, Trump saw people who like him. Probably, he thought he could seem like the bigger man by talking about “both sides.” But Fox News Host Eboni Williams put it well when she said: “President Trump, I do not know your heart, but what I do know for sure is that you’ve clearly done the math. Abd you’ve decided that your portion of the base that is absolutely racist is so significant, so valuable, that you hesitate—even in the face of blatant, flagrant hatred—to risk turning them off and thereby crippling your political stronghold … You are actually uniquely positioned to forcefully call out evil, anti-American domestic terrorists, but we certainly cannot change what we fail to acknowledge.”
Of course violence, in general, is always horrible. If you want to call a press conference on an odd Wednesday to talk about how we need to be a more peaceful society, that would be welcome. But you don’t need to condemn violence of all kinds on a day when there are white supremacists actually being violent. There is a time and place to focus on a single incident. When you sidestep an important issue in favor of one you’re more interested in, or that your followers are more supportive of, you hide from the real issue at hand—which in this case is that Neo-Nazis are marching in America in 2017.
I hope that we can start having conversations that remain focused on the issues at hand. We, as a nation, need to think about the kind of values we want to show the rest of the world in who we elect to represent us. I don’t know what happens in 2018 and 2020 at the ballot box, but this is a historical moment, and those who refuse to take an explicit stand against bigotry are missing out on the chance to be on the right side of history.
A new national discussion is critical, among private citizens as well. Hopefully we all have friends who have different ideologies. That’s what makes life interesting. But any apologists for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists—who took the life of an innocent woman standing up for fundamental American values—have no place in my life, and I don’t think they should have a place in Americans’ lives. I respect the First Amendment, I know that hate speech is protected, but that doesn’t mean you have to stand there and listen to it. There are times when equivocating has no place, and you can walk away.
As told to Romy Oltuski.