The institution where I work, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, spent much of 2015 and 2016 conducting an in-depth study of the promise and perils of presidential first-years. By carefully assessing past presidents’ first years in office, we hoped that we could provide historical insights and guidance for the new occupant of the White House, regardless of who won. Among our many conclusions, the most important may have been this: during their first-year in office, a new president will face a major crisis that will test their leadership skills and lay bare their courage and moral standing before the American people and the world.
We would never have guessed that Donald Trump’s first great crisis would occur in our own city (actually, we would never have guessed that Donald Trump would be elected president, but that’s another matter).
The even deeper irony is that now, it is only by coming to Charlottesville that Trump could regain even a shred of the moral standing that most past presidents have enjoyed simply by default.
But he won’t, because to do so in a presidential manner would violate his true allegiances.
Last weekend, our city experienced an unwelcome invasion by a heavily armed contingent of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Although the city sought to discourage their rally, and attempted to move it to a safer location in a larger park, the local and national organizers refused to cooperate and successfully fought the city in the courts. They would not be deterred from the goals of spreading their ideology of hate and celebrating the ugliest and most shameful aspects of our nation’s history (and, sadly, its present) – and ultimately, of transforming the United States into a white supremacist autocracy.
On Friday evening, participants staged a torchlight parade into the university, around the Thomas Jefferson-designed rotunda, and then attacked students and community members who had encircled Jefferson’s statue. The imagery evoked that of Klan rallies, or the Nazi Nuremburg rallies of the 1930s.
The next day, they clashed with counter-protesters and law enforcement before one of their number drove his car into a group of peaceful protesters, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others. The terrorist fled from the scene before being apprehended by police. Along the way, he ditched his car around the corner from my house. So yes, all this is personal: for me, for Charlottesville and for many around the country.
The first-year crisis had arrived for Donald Trump. Our city and our nation faced an attack on core principles, however imperfectly achieved. It was exactly the moment when a new president must respond, simultaneously deploying the moral authority of the office while also establishing their own credibility and capability as the nation’s leader. Exactly because it is personal for so many.
On Saturday afternoon, Donald Trump failed miserably. He did not denounce the Nazis or white supremacists, but chose instead to blame “many sides” for the violence. It is of course true that some of the counter-protesters behaved violently (although at least in some cases in defense of those under attack), but that misses the point: neo-Nazis and white supremacists instigated the event to promote a viewpoint that should be outside the boundaries of American political discourse. The president should have condemned them immediately.
To make matters worse, Trump added that we should “cherish our history,” a barely concealed dog-whistle endorsing the white supremacists’ stated justification for the rally: Charlottesville’s ongoing effort to remove downtown statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
This was not actually a difficult moment: Nazi, not-Nazi, pick one! Most other Republican leaders did, as numerous senators and members of Congress quickly moved to denounce the attack on Charlottesville and the white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies that it represented.
After two days of intense criticism from both parties, Trump finally spoke out on Monday afternoon, but his words rang hollow. His capacity for leadership, and the moral standing that it requires, had been eroded by his lack of courage on Saturday afternoon. On Tuesday, he doubled down, vehemently insisting that both sides bore equal blame for the violence and making his Confederate nostalgia explicit by defending the statues and charging that protesters will next insist on taking down statues of Washington and Jefferson.
He made the latter comment despite the students and activists who stood around UVA’s Jefferson statue Friday night – to defend it.
None of this is helped by Trump’s continued employment of known white nationalist and white supremacist sympathizers such as Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka.
At this point, there is probably no way that Trump can fully recover his lost standing as a result of this event. But let’s conduct a thought experiment: what if Trump handled the crisis in the same way that many of his predecessors responded when American communities experienced traumatic events: what if he came to Charlottesville?
If he did, there would be no crowd of cheering supporters to greet him at a rally in a basketball arena, as per his preferences. This city voted nearly 80 percent for Hillary Clinton, and he has done nothing since to increase his popularity here.
But that is exactly why he should come. Because it would be hard. Because there would be protests.
He should pay respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer; he should visit with members of our large refugee and immigrant community; he should listen to the life stories of African-Americans, including in our low-income, highly segregated neighborhoods (this place is far from perfect); he should meet with our Jewish mayor, who last winter and spring offered nuanced arguments for why we should contextualize the Confederate statues; he should meet with our African-American vice-mayor, who led the movement to remove the statues; he should meet with those who tried to stand guard around Jefferson’s statue as torch bearing marchers gave Hitler salutes and threw torches at them; he should meet with local counter-protest organizers to hear their experiences of facing down heavily-armed white supremacists.
While he is here, he could announce that Bannon, Miller and Gorka will no longer serve in his administration.
Above all, though, Trump should listen. He should, for once, be quiet. After he’s done all that, then, perhaps, he could get a do-over on denouncing white supremacy. Then, perhaps, he could begin to recover the moral standing that most first-year presidents enjoy as a matter of course.
Perhaps Donald Trump has the courage and the moral character to do this. Perhaps.