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Opinion: 'These bigots are not representative of 60 million citizens who voted for Trump'

Saying that the average Trump voter is a racist amounts to a slur on those (including several of my own close friends) who voted for him for a variety of reasons, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

FROM NOW ON, the relatively sleepy and tranquil city of Charlottesville, Virginia – approximately 100 miles from Washington, DC – will be associated with the horrific occurrences of this past weekend.

Malevolent motley crews of white supremacists from multiple states were to gather together to air their grievances at the removal of a statue honouring Confederate General Robert E Lee.

It is important to note, however, that many who came to the protest were armed with sophisticated weaponry and that, notwithstanding the localised purpose articulated by the organisers, the rhetoric of the leaders of the white supremacist movement who were present suggested a substantially greater ambition.

Not a peaceful rally

For instance, when asked what the significance of last Saturday in Charlottesville was, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and serial candidate for local, State, federal and national office, David Duke, replied that “this day represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump.”

In short, this was neither a peaceful, nor an ad hoc, rally. It was an attempt to mobilise what its organisers believe is a silent, white majority who reject multiculturalism and long for a return to the days when racial minorities “knew their place.”

It is extremely doubtful that they will achieve any of their longer term goals, yet what happened in Charlottesville last weekend sadly cannot be undone. The hideous, disgusting language used by some despicable individuals was surpassed only by the terrifying, primitive scenes of physical violence that ensued.

Most tragically, a woman who was there to refute the vile sentiments on offer from white supremacists was killed when a car was driven deliberately into a counter-demonstration. Heather Heyer, a paralegal, was just 32. As a friend of hers poignantly observed, “Heather died for a reason. I don’t see any difference in her or a soldier who died in war. She, in a sense, died for her country.” So she did.

Racism persists in the US

Moving on from, while not forgetting, Charlottesville, three overarching points are worth making.

The first is that – despite the election of an African American president in 2008 and subsequent speculation about a post-racial society – racism persists in the United States. Even though it’s been strenuously and credibly contended that, in some quite tangible ways, institutional discrimination against men and women with darker skin is a relic of the past, the reality is that there is are Americans who, at their core, are haters.

For reasons too complex to address even perfunctorily here, they judge and despise anyone who appears different to them.

Among the profoundly disturbing elements one invariably encounters in considering racism and its exponents in the US is the extent to which the hearts and minds of young people can be infected with hate. The driver of the car that caused death and serious injury in Charlottesville, James Fields, is 20 years old.

At least one of this adolescent’s high school teachers identified an unhealthy obsession with Hitler and Nazi Germany and sought desperately to sway his former student to no avail. Why Mr Fields and those who share his warped outlook are so consumed by hatred is a question that will never be answered sufficiently.

These bigots are not representative of Trump supporters

Second is that these committed bigots are not representative of the more than 60 million citizens who cast ballots for Donald Trump last November. One prominent left-wing commentator tweeted an image of the white supremacists in Charlottesville and wrote “THAT’S why Trump was elected.”

But if haters were large enough numerically or powerful enough politically, surely there would have been a President Duke before a President Obama? Although candidate Trump subtly exploited racial resentments in his campaign, his was a very long distance from the message favoured by white supremacists.

Moreover, implicitly charging that the average Trump voter is a racist amounts to a slur on those (including several of my own close friends) who voted for him for a variety of reasons and who cannot abide prejudice. Boston Globe columnist Thomas Farragher likewise describes Trump backers in his hometown: “they are not haters. Some are the most decent, kind, unselfish people I know.”

When President Trump’s enemies seek to stereotype the people who took a chance on an unconventional and, indeed, often offensive candidate last November, they are factually wrong and politically foolish. As pollster Nate Cohn argues persuasively, the millions of Americans who went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 put the latter over the top. Their votes are up for grabs in 2020. They are improbable racists.

Reaction of Trump White House was disheartening

Third, the reaction of the Trump White House in the wake of a truly dreadful weekend was stunning and disheartening at every level. An ambiguous statement as to where blame lay, followed by outcry and criticism both from Democrats and Republicans, then a more robust, wholly appropriate naming and shaming and, finally, a bizarre press conference where President Trump claimed for a second time that there was fault on all sides in Charlottesville have highlighted just how bad he and his administration can be at politics and communications.

The message needed to be crystal clear: the events in Charlottesville were absolutely sickening and white supremacists, who are the antithesis of everything America has always stood for, were responsible.

President Trump’s initial, mealy mouthed comments, insofar as they obscured that truth, were reprehensible. His rather similar pronouncements and rambling rationalisations in front of the media yesterday were worse. The mind boggles as to why he has erred so drastically.

And politically – leaving morality and right and wrong aside for just one second – any advice that he should be careful in his wording so as not to offend a small constituency of “white nationalists” is colossally off the mark. No matter what President Trump says about them, it is inconceivable that bigots would prefer a Democratic presidential nominee (or a more mainstream conservative Republican primary challenger) who will vigorously oppose the proposed wall on the Mexican border and favour stronger civil rights protections for African Americans.

In one sense, the aftermath of Charlottesville has exposed a divide in how President Trump’s adversaries view him. Some mainly see inexperience, arrogance and gross misfeasance; others regard him with much deeper suspicion and see sinister malfeasance.

Neither school of thought is particularly comforting, but I have always been in the former camp. Recent days give me pause.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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