AMERICA is imploding, or so it seems. In the last couple of weeks, we saw a wave of top-level hirings, firings, resignations and feuds.
And then, we also witnessed neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. First came the not-too-well publicised rally by white supremacists on the University of Virginia campus bearing torches and chanting white nationalistic — or more correctly Christian fascist — slogans. The march was a precursor to a much larger, nastier and virulent rally in Charlottesville the next day where a 32-year-old woman was killed by a neo-Nazi activist.
Many analysts blame the POTUS for the violence that ensured there by waking up or giving new life to the once dormant fascist, racist and bigoted elements within the United States. Remember Trump’s hateful speeches and comments during the presidential campaign? His campaign was full of bigotry and racism, which saw its culmination with the travel bans he imposed as soon as he was sworn in as president. His core message has been all about saving White America — a far cry from the current makeup within the United States, which has steadily been becoming very diverse.
The all-exclusive supremacist ideology anywhere, including apartheid Myanmar, in our time exploits Darwinist fear-mongering about the ‘other’ race or religion. That is, unless the ‘others’ are eliminated or their growth minimised, the ‘supreme’ race is in danger of extinction; it will lose its identity or (more properly) the privileged status — thus, becoming a second or third-class entity. So, here in the United States, the white supremacists, like their counterparts in Europe, have been selling the fear-mongering statistics that unless the influx of the outsiders — legal immigrants and illegals alike — from Asia, Africa and Latin America —is totally stopped, they will become a minority in the United States within the next 25 years. With that change in demography, they see an existential threat to their white race.
With Trump in the Oval Office, the fascist, neo-Nazis see him as their avatar. Trump’s ‘Making America great again’ echoes slogans from the fascist movements of the past. For them, it is now or never moment to stop their ‘abandonment’ by the White House. They are emboldened to organise such neo-Nazi rallies in various parts of the United States. Already we are seeing the rise of vigilantism in the streets and subways across many American cities, and attacks and vandalism of mosques and Jewish cemeteries with the president rationalising violence on the right. Additionally, the department of justice is run by a man — Jeff Sessions — known for his cavorting with the KKK in his youth. Lest we forget, the Trump administration has also cut funding for groups dedicated to spotlighting and fighting white supremacy.
When asked about Charlottesville violence, president Trump was unable to schmooze like a normal politician. As a matter of fact, he did a terrible job in condemning white supremacists shouting slogans like ‘blood and soil’ and ‘Jews will not replace us.’ He tried to equate the behaviour of those evil, divisive neo-Nazi forces in Charlottesville with those that rallied against their hateful message of racism and bigotry by insisting that there were ‘many sides’ to blame for the violence. ‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides’, Trump said.
His initial condemnation of violence ‘on many sides’ suggested a wilful ignorance of the mere fact that one side seeks the extermination and ethnic cleansing of the non-whites via genocidal violence and are willing to use violence to achieve these goals. The other side, on the other hand, offers a principled stand against fascism, seeking to eliminate the threat of fascist violence. Equating the intent and purpose of the two groups is simply disingenuous.
Facing mounting pressure from political leaders, Trump issued a second statement, nearly 48 hours after the incident. ‘Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminal and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans’, Trump said. While this was a powerful and the right message, during his press conference a day later, however, he flip-flopped and tried to downplay the role of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who participated in the rally and brought violence to the idyllic college town by saying that there were some ‘very fine people’ mixed among them. Obviously, he tried to humanise inhumane neo-Nazi protesters by saying that ‘not all of those people were neo-Nazis…. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.’ This framing once again revealed his deplorable blindness to a rally that was, at its core, motivated by extreme hate, as seen in the mass chants of ‘blood and soil’ (a reference to historic Nazi rhetoric seeking to create a right to land for ‘indigenous’ whites only), by protesters wielding torches and yelling ‘Jews will not replace us!’, and engaging in mass violence against counter-protesters.
Trump’s freewheeling remarks ultimately walked back the positive statement he had made a day earlier. His equivocation or failure to condemn neo-Nazism and bigotry is simply repugnant. Even some Trump supporters and Jewish Republicans have condemned the president’s spread-the-blame response and statement.
‘There are no good Nazis and no good members of the [Ku Klux] Klan’, the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement. ‘We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon president Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and anti-semitism’, the statement said.
But for many Jews, the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday (August 12) and Trump’s vacillating response were of a whole other order. ‘No one, whether Republican, independent or a Democrat… wants to see the Klan or Nazis parading down the streets of the United States, as if they’re taking over’, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of Los Angeles’s Simon Wiesenthal Centre, named after the famed Nazi hunter, and its Museum of Tolerance. ‘No one could ever compare neo-Nazis, the Klan and white supremacists to demonstrators that are demonstrating against them’, said Hier, who delivered one of several prayers at Trump’s inauguration. ‘To equate the two sides’, he went on, ‘is preposterous.’
The leading organisation of Orthodox rabbis also weighed in with a statement condemning the president’s comparing white supremacist marchers to counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville. ‘There is no moral comparison’, said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America. ‘Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism.’ The statement was particularly notable given Trump’s support among Orthodox Jews, who, unlike more secular Jews, supported the president in large numbers. (Jews constitute about 3 per cenbt of the electorate.) His son-in-law Jared Kushner is a practising Orthodox Jew.
If president Trump loved his daughter Ivanka, who had converted to Judaism before marrying Jared, one is simply bewildered to understand his rhetoric! With almost universal condemnation of his mixed messaging, Trump has since then tried to recapture moral high ground, which he never had, by condemning racism and bigotry. I wish he had come out unambiguous much earlier!
No one should, however, misconstrue where Trump’s heart is. It is with the fascists. Thus, he had no qualms about the alleged virtues of their cause when he compared Southern Confederate General Robert E Lee to George Washington, and lamented the tearing down of ‘our beautiful statues and monuments’ that iconise slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. Trump wondered ‘where does it stop?’ with regard to pulling down the statues, a clear wink to the fascist right he continues to court.
The admiration for neo-Nazi fascism is nothing new in the United States. These admirers are not and were never aliens; they come from all facets of the American society, as it is the case today and as it was back then during the heydays of the Third Reich.
On the night of February 20, 1939, some 20,000 Nazi sympathisers gathered at a ‘Pro-America Rally’ inside Madison Square Garden in New York City proclaiming that George Washington was the ‘first fascist’ and mocking FDR, the man who was then president, as ‘Franklin D Rosenfeld.’ They characterised his New Deal as a ‘Jew Deal.’
That day, some 80,000 anti-fascist protesters gathered outside the hall. Some fought with police while trying to get inside the Garden to shut down the Nazi event. History shows that those anti-Nazi protesters were on the right side of history.
I am glad that there are many such activists throughout the United States. It was no accident that when thirty White Supremacists rallied in Boston August 19, there were thousands of Bostonians — whites and non-whites alike — that showed up to protest at their message of hatred. Only after 90 minutes, the neo-Nazis had to pack up and leave.
Fascism is a cancerous ideology and must be fought to save humanity — irrespective of whether it is showing its ugly face in Suu Kyi’s Myanmar or Trump’s America. Sadly though, most Americans are poorly educated about their country’s past. Most of them are unaware that in the 1930s, thousands of Adolph Hitler’s American admirers were politically active throughout the country. They are unaware of the Silver Legion of America, an anti-Semitic, white supremacist group that ran William Dudley Pelley for president on a third-party ticket in 1936.
While a sympathiser to fascism and white supremacy may not find faults with white-robed Ku Klux Klan members marching down the American streets (with or without the hoods) chanting their hateful slogans, but such events create anxiety amongst American Blacks.
It was quite natural, therefore, for men of conscience to condemn Trump’s equivocation. One after another, many members of president Trump’s advisory boards have resigned. Thanks to Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck & Company, one of the biggest drug-makers in the United States, to start the process by resigning from the American Manufacturing Council. (Nearly 10 years ago, I had the privilege of meeting him while he was president of the manufacturing division and I was the director of the Centre of Excellence within the research division of Merck.)
As white nationalists, the American fascists, clashed with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia while the POTUS Trump was equivocating sending mixed messages, Ken decided to act. If Trump could not condemn the hate groups, Ken Frazier — the son of a janitor and grandson of a man born into slavery — could not support him. As the only Afro-American CEO in the group, Ken resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council, one of several advisory groups Trump formed in an effort to forge alliances with big businesses. His decision required guts, and thanks God that he had plenty of such, which motivated many other members to resign from Trump’s advisory groups.
Trump, who had hitherto tried to sell himself as a darling amongst the business executives who could make ‘America great’ again, had no option but to disband two CEO councils after a slew of major business leaders quit last week to protest what they said was the president’s failure to sufficiently condemn the neo-Nazi and other racist groups in Charlottesville clashes.
The fallout is not limited to the AMC alone. Even within Trump’s Christian evangelical base that voted overwhelmingly (80 per cent) for him during the presidential election, New York City mega-church pastor AR Bernard has stepped down. Carl Icahn, Trump’s adviser on regulatory affairs has also stepped down last Friday.
Last Friday, all 17 members of the White House advisory commission on the arts and humanities, including several from Hollywood, resigned en masse to protest at president Trump’s divisive comments on the deadly violence in Charlottesville. ‘Reproach and censure in the strongest possible terms are necessary following your support of the hate groups and terrorists who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville’, the arts group wrote in a letter to Trump. ‘The false equivalencies you push cannot stand.’ ‘Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values’, they wrote. ‘Your values are not American values.’
The collapse of the president’s committee on the arts and the humanities marks the latest break between the Trump White House and the arts community, which had widely embraced president Obama, and marks his further isolation. The committee was created in 1982 under president Reagan and acts as an advisory panel on cultural issues. It is among dozens of mostly ceremonial White House panels that advise the president on business, education and other issues. It draws from Hollywood, Broadway and the broader arts and entertainment community. First Lady Melania Trump is the honorary chairwoman.
The committee works with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, along with other federal partners and the private sector.
These resignations and counter-protests against white supremacist rallies speak volumes about what is wrong with Trump presidency. No wonder his job approval rate has sunk below 30 per cent.
Shake-ups within the White House is nothing new. But perhaps never in the last four decades have we seen so many high-level shuffles in such a short time as we saw in the last four weeks. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has stepped out of the White House. He has been a very polarising figure in the Trump inner circle, accused often of being a White House leaker and in bad terms with Jared Kushner, Trump’s trusted adviser and even the new chief-of-staff John Kelly. Bannon was an influential voice inside the White House, feeding and encouraging Trump’s (white) nationalist and populist instincts.
In the process, Bannon reaped an infamous reputation as a puppet master pulling the strings in the Oval Office, with pop culture portrayals ranging from the moniker ‘President Bannon’ to his depiction as the grim reaper on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Those portrayals — coupled with a Time Magazine cover that declared him ‘the great manipulator’ — often angered Trump, who chafes at being outshone.
Since his inclusion as a powerful adviser to the president, there have been repeated calls to fire him — even from the GOP, which never died down. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed Bannon’s departure, but claimed the decision for him to leave was mutual.
‘We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency’, Bannon told The Weekly Standard after his departure from the White House. He still has his buddies like Gorka and Miller within the White House.
As hinted above, the dark forces have tried to control American society since the country’s inception. Racists, anti-Semites, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigots have always been there. Sometimes they have been on the fringes; other times, they have held power in many states and in Congress. The reason new manifestations of these dreadful ideologies need to be resisted is that they are never completely defeated, and, if not opposed, they can gain in popularity and power.
Confederate statues and monuments are symbols of slavery, racism and bigotry. They cannot be brushed away as part of American history. There is a very real danger in the Trump administration’s toying with fascism via threats to criminalise journalists, his support for physical assault against leftist protesters, and his providing of cover to violent right-wing militants in Charlottesville. Considering Trump’s latent fascist tendencies, the emergence of a full-blown fascist state is something we can no longer afford to ignore.
As recently noted by professor Anthony DiMaggio of Lehigh University, the Southern Poverty Law Centre estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of far-right militia members across the country, and more than 900 individual groups. If the rise of armed insurrections by Cliven and Ammon Bundy and their supporters, in addition to the dozens of acts of right-wing terrorism that have occurred in recent years have not jolted our mind, let the events in Charlottesville be a sufficient wakeup call that the far right is willing to use extreme methods to pursue their political goals.
We can defeat such dark forces by educating each other about the harms of their evil agenda. Ours may be a slow process and a long march, but is essential to save our humanity. I am sure if Americans know about harms of exclusivist white supremacy they would be less inclined to fall for it. Surely, we cannot afford any politician flirting with the dark forces and their toxic ideology no matter how it is packaged.
Dr Habib Siddiqui is a peace and rights activist.
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