Tolerance for the Intolerant

Trump goes off script, insisting there was nothing wrong with his response to Charlottesville.

I see it in every prepared word he speaks.

He wants so very badly to hang onto their enthusiasm, their passion for his cause--which is to say, their passion for him. They are the truest of the true, the deep core, the believers who can never be shaken from their faith in him, their undying trust that he will continue to vouch for them, even when he must do it in coded language.

It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to disavow him, and I'm sure that's what his advisors are asking him to do. Mind you, they can't tell him to do anything. That's a recipe for unemployment. But asking, and doing it in an absolutely respectful way, carefully wording the request in terms that are as flattering as they can possibly be--yes, I'm sure they're doing a lot of that.

"Just a though, Mr. President: the vagueness of the remarks you made is proving unpopular with some of the--oh, let's call them the more washy-washy parts of the party base. You know, the ones that still believe in globalism. They'd like you to just make a clear statement that the racists are bad, and the counter-protesters are promoting a good cause. Just a few words. It'll make everything so much easier."

But no, his directions to them are as clear as he's capable of being: say as much as you can without naming names. Condemn all the violence. Talk about "thugs," but do it in a way that could mean both KKK and Black Lives Matter. Put in some platitudes about how when one of us is hurting, we're all hurting, but don't specify the victim as someone who could be associated with antifa or some minority.

So that's what they wrote. That was what was on the teleprompter both Monday and Tuesday, for both the Afghanistan "policy" speech (a bundle of generalities that boiled down to "we'll keep doing what Obama did, but pretend it's something new") and the reelection rally in Phoenix (yes, it really was a campaign rally for 2020). On Monday, he stayed on message, adding hardly a word to the text his handlers had prepared for him. On Tuesday, though...

On Tuesday, he was true to form.

On Tuesday, President Trump started out with the teleprompter, but soon found himself reaching into his pocket, pulling out the text he was supposed to read more than a week ago, a careful condemnation of the nationalists who turned a college town into a pusch. It wasn't the words on those pages that got him in trouble, though he insisted they were what the media had turned into a scandal. No, it was the words he added, three words that he repeated for emphasis, and came back to two days later because he seems to believe them: condemning violence "from many sides." He went on, later in the week, to talk about the "good people" who were marching along with the militant racists, defending American history from those who would rewrite it to be something more like what actually happened, signifying what the Civil War was actually about.

You know, the thugs.

Again and again, Trump has expressed himself as a rich white man who just doesn't understand what those poor people of color are so upset about. It's not like they're slaves anymore, or that Jim Crow is the law of the land. For pity's sake, they get to vote now, and if they can just weave the new layers of voting restrictions he wants to put in place, they may even get to vote in 2020.

It's hard to tell how much of this embarrassment is simple cluelessness, and how much is the calculation of the only expert whose opinion really matters to Donald Trump: his own craven id. He can read the poll numbers, can see that even Fox News reporters have lost their perpetual positivity when they talk about him, and are even feeling obliged to distance themselves from his statements. He sees how the establishment that hitched itself to his crazy engine are now wishing they could move off to a siding, perhaps find a different, more traditionally sedate engine to link up with. He knows he's lost much of the Republican base, knows that the only base he really has left are the not-well-educated extremists, the ordinarily bigoted Americans who jumped on board because they recognized in him a kindred spirit of intolerance, something they'd not seen in a Presidential candidate since George Wallace quit the Democratic party to run as an independent. Here was someone who spoke their Truth exactly as they understood it, pinning the blame for everything that had come to feel wrong about the United States on Barack Obama and people who, like him, had darker skin than they. If they were immigrants, they needed to go home. If they were African-Americans, they were thugs who needed some tough love from a police force unfettered by Constitutional restrictions.

These were the people who marched in Charlottesville, waving flags of the racist parties they had joined. They brought with them their guns (when it comes to armaments, white supremacists love the Second Amendment), roughed up some counter-protesters, and were delighted when one of their brethren drove his car into an anti-fascist crowd, killing one and seriously wounding a dozen others.

In the wake of that horror, Trump has continued to demand that his speech-writers equivocate, writing non-specific condemnations of violence that can be interpreted by either side as applying to the other guys; and when those don't feel satisfying enough to him--and especially when he sees critical stories about himself in the media--he doubles down, finding new ways to appease the racists and scandalize everyone else.

As he goes on ramping up the racial hatred, criticisms grow. He's losing what little connection he had left with Capitol Hill. His base is shrinking. He's earned condemnations from every aspect of American government. With the exception of Russia, he's also been universally rebuked by the international community.

At least, he can promise himself, he's got the racists--though he'd rather call them heroes, patriots, defenders of the Constitution.

Since the first dissonance was sensed between what Trump was saying and what was happening on the ground in Charlottesville, the media have been almost unanimous is their insistence that this should be the easiest thing Trump has ever done. Condemning Nazis has been a staple of White House rhetoric for at least 75 years now. As horrific as war can be--and World War II was especially horrific--Americans can rest in the knowledge that they were on the right side. The United States stood for human rights, democracy, the rule of law. Nazis were antagonistic to all those ideals. Winning the war preserved Europe, enabling it to become the multicultural economic powerhouse it is today. It also left a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the Soviet Union, a nation that, overnight, went from ally to enemy in the new, protracted, and very cold war. Americans had no trouble then imagining Russians as the enemy.

Today, Russia is the international ally of the White Power movement; and as with his racist core, Trump is extremely reluctant to condemn Russia, however corrupt and violent it may become.

It's easy for someone like me to condemn Trump, even easier to condemn the hate groups he stubbornly clings to as the solid core of his base. It's easy, as well, to question whether organized bigotry should be afforded the Constitutional soapbox of rights to speak, publish, and assemble. When these people gather now, they do it armed to the teeth. They come looking for a fight, and at the first sign of anger from counter-protesters, they wade in with mace, billy clubs and, some day soon, gunfire.

The ACLU, an organization I have long supported, has stuck to its Constitutional absolutism, defending the rights of Neo-Nazis and Klansmen to assemble and proclaim their violent message in public places. It's the literal application of disagreeing with, even hating, what these people have to say, yet defending to the death their right to say it. I've long stood by this principle, even when it meant permitting certifiably horrible people to say disgusting things to innocent victims who had no way to fight back.

In the wake of Charlottesville, though, I'm beginning to rethink that position.

The threat of violence has always been a part of white supremacist demonstrations. In the bad old days of Jim Crow, it was understood that objecting too visibly to these displays could mean having one's care pulled over by a local sheriff for the crime of driving while enlightened. In the 1960s, far too many activists disappeared for doing just that.

Those days are gone, and we haven't had to worry about them for a very long time. When nationalists gather, they don't threaten violence like they used to. Local police are no longer wearing white hoods, and if they're found to belong to any of these groups, they're given their walking papers. The organized racists are also far fewer in numbers than they were then.

On the other hand, they're much better armed than they used to be.

In the decades since Jim Crow came to an end, the NRA has worked tirelessly to promote the rights of ordinary Americans to own firearms that can wound and kill dozens of people in a matter of seconds. The implicit threat of simply being part of a white terror organization has been replaced with the explicit threat of open carry.

There have been many in the last week who've called for limitations on the tolerance American society has traditionally extended to the expression of marginal ideas, including those of white racists. They've said we need to stop extending tolerance to the intolerant, that people who advocate for ending the rights of others should have those same rights taken from them. I will admit I feel a measure of sympathy for this view. I've been on the receiving end of some hate speech, and even a death threat (when I was pastor of a gay-friendly church, and working in gay rights advocacy), though nothing even remotely comparable to what the truly marginalized experience on a daily basis. It's a terrifying thing to realize someone hates you enough to risk imprisonment for expressing that hate. And it's true that I find the strict legal rejection of hate speech in post-war Germany to be an admirable thing, Reconstruction done right.

Even so, I don't live in Germany. I live in a country built on a foundation of radical freedom, and I do believe even the most deplorable of Americans still have a right to free expression.

But here's the rub: I don't believe they have the right to do it while carrying an assault weapon.

If you've read much of this blog, you know I'm no fan of guns. In fact, I'd love to have the Supreme Court rewrite the Second Amendment into something sensible and contemporary--or to interpret it as strict originalists, and point out that the text is clearly meant to promote a government-regulated citizen militia, not to put deadly weapons in the hands of anyone who wants them.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I see no problem with placing common sense restrictions on how fully armed demonstrators are permitted to be. I don't think it hurts anyone's right to speak freely to forbid them to do it while threatening counter-protesters with an assault rifle. And yes, I'm aware there are plenty of ways to injure and kill people that don't entail owning a gun (the woman who died last week was killed by a car, for God's sake). But I'd much rather see truth spoken to, rather than from, power.

Even if the "truth" is debatable.

America can tolerate hate speech. We've been doing it for most of my life. What we can't tolerate is the use of deadly weapons being used to silence critics, and to force the hatred on communities.

It's simply intolerable.


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