The media mob wasted no time in descending on Charlottesville, and the first order of business was to exploit the bigotry, tragedy and evil to make it the work of the Republicans, conservatives, and above all, Donald Trump.
This has been a project years in the making. Shooting congressmen by a crazed Democratic liberal is reduced to a footnote in accounts of the shooting, and shoved down the memory hole to be forgotten in a day or so. But we can be sure the Charlottesville riot will be endlessly exploited over the next several days and weeks as the white folks’ equivalent of the radical Muslim massacres of Paris, Orlando and San Bernardino.
The counterdemonstrators to a white nationalist rally showed up spoiling for a fight, but that does not excuse the rally organizers for what happened, including the assault by a particularly thuggish assassin driving a car into the crowd. They were finally denounced by the president as the “thugs” — the president’s word — they are.
And it’s true that Mr. Trump, whose tweets are not always calibrated to a presidential standard, should have used language making it clear to the densest among us in his first reaction to the riot that he was not excluding the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis or white nationalists from his description of “evil.”
He finally said explicitly what he had made clear enough on Saturday. He “includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis and all extremist groups” in his remarks excoriating, denouncing, censuring, blaming, upbraiding, and knocking the evildoers. (Should we get a bigger thesaurus?)
But whatever this president would say, his partisan critics and the media were waiting to pick it apart and find it wanting. He could never say it strong enough. Indeed, in the revised remarks distributed by the White House on Sunday an observant critic would note that he did not spell out “Ku Klux Klan,” perhaps in the hope that many people would not know what the initials KKK actually stand for. Even his adjective “evil” has 27 synonyms in one thesaurus. Why did he not use all of them? What kind of dog could miss that missing whistle?
Martin Luther King’s dream of a day when a man will be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, has been relegated to the dustbin of discarded ideals by a modern culture that demands that identity politics dice and slice Americans by race, ethnicity, region, gender (even sex) and religious faith. “Diversity” is all in allocating jobs, college admissions, even pay. Merit and performance on the job dare not speak its name.
“A politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways on the right and left,” observes The Wall Street Journal. “The extremists were on the right in Charlottesville, but there have been examples on the left in Berkeley, Oakland and numerous college campuses. When Democratic politicians can’t even say that ‘all lives matter’ without being denounced as bigots, American politics has a problem.”
Bernie Sanders was the Democratic politician who learned that painful lesson when he thought he was making the uncontroversial point that all lives do, indeed, matter. Who could argue with that? He soon learned, and a day later apologized with a full grovel, and would have tugged a forelock if he still had one.
That’s why this chaos threatens never to end for as long as the generations alive today survive. Calls for “unity” sound good and make those calling for “unity” feel good about themselves if not about anyone else. But extremists define “unity” to mean unity as when dissenters and naysayers are clubbed into bloody submission. We’ve been diced and sliced beyond unity and one day soon the Middle East, with its cultural and religious differences and a hundred reasons to fight and kill each other over arcane points of theology that outsiders cannot fathom, will have nothing on America, where the liberals and the left demand unanimous submission as the price of unity.
Soon all the statuary of Robert E. Lee, recognized by history and his military peers as America’s greatest soldier, will have been pulled down to become but chips and chunks of litter across a broken land, replaced by sordid icons of a sordid culture. Still the politically pious will demand satisfaction, but satisfaction always just out of reach.
The ultimate lesson of Charlottesville and all the assaults on decency from every “side” is that we are the inheritors of Lincoln’s exceptional nation who failed to preserve it. “A republic, sir,” Benjamin Franklin replied when a bystander in Philadelphia asked him what the Founding Fathers had bequeathed on that first Fourth of July. “If you can keep it.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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