On the Wisdom of Leaving Bad Enough Alone

Up until he took that famous escalator ride down to the lobby of Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, we happily paid little attention to Donald Trump. Since then we’ve been forced to pay attention, though, and have noticed that he never backs down, always fights back, and never fails to leave bad enough alone. President Trump demonstrated those same qualities yet again on Tuesday, and as usual they didn’t serve him well.
The whole mess started last Friday when a few hundred armed-and-armored Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis and various other white supremacist types from around the country descended on the picturesque and impeccably liberal college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park and to more generally “Unite the Right.” Of course a larger crowd of counter-protestors turned out, there were predictably many street brawls between the more violent elements of both crowds, and it culminated with a muscle car driven by one of the white supremacists plowing into a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors and killing one while injuring 20 others. Several hours after the fatal incident the president addressed the nation, condemning the “hated, violence and bigotry, on many sides,” repeating “on many sides” for emphasis.
Except for the most loyal news outlets and their most steadfast callers and commenters, and the former Grand Wizard and the “alt-right” spokesman who co-hosted the rally and “tweeted” their thanks for the statement, the reviews were not kind. The entirety of the left, almost the entirety of the middle, and all the more respectable segments of the right were offended by the apparent moral equivalence between the KKK and neo-Nazis and the people who engaged in the fights they had clearly intended to provoke. Both the moderate and more traditionally conservative Republicans in Congress were more unequivocal in their denunciations of white supremacism, so were several administration officials, including the Vice President and that Attorney General the left considers a stone-cold racist, as well as the president’s favorite daughter, and by Monday Trump was reading a teleprompter-ed speech that actually named the KKK and neo-Nazism and racism in general while singling them out for specific presidential opprobrium.
The entirety of the left doubted that his heart was really in it, and most of the middle and those respectable quarters of the right were openly wondering what took him so long, but at least it gave his apologists in the administration and the most loyal news outlets something to work with. There were bound to deal with predictable some sidebar stories, which in this case involved a few Fortune 500 executives and organized labor honchos resigning from a presidential advisory board in protest of the president’s handling of the situation, but a careful moment of silence might have helped quiet the storm of negative coverage. Tuesday also brought news of the North Koreans doing their usual backing down from their usual bellicose rhetoric in the face’s of Trump’s more-bellicose-than-usual rhetoric, the latest leak about the “Russia” thing actually bolstered the president’s much-in-need-of-bolstering claim that he had nothing to do with it, and the stock markets were up and employment was still down and the weather was nice here in Wichita, but by now we’ve seen enough of the guy that we’re not the least bit surprised Trump chose to instead make the Charlottesville mess the top story for yet another day.
Instead, Trump started the day with a round of “tweets” insulting the business executives and labor leaders who had resigned from his manufacturing advisory panel.The first of them had been the head of the Merck pharmaceutical company, one of the few black CEOs to hold such a position, and Trump had already accused him “ripping off” his customers. The next two were the predictably white and male heads of a software giant and a prominent sports gear manufacturer, then the president of the labor-affiliated Alliance for American Manufacturing and the American-Federation of Labor-Congress of Interational Organizations. Trump tweeted back that there were plenty of good people willing to replace them and that they were “grandstanding,” apparently unaware of what a hoot that was to all but his most loyal supporters. In a later press conference he said the executives were leaving out of “embarrassment” about their companies’ reliance on foreign labor, which is also something of a hoot if you’ve been following the practices of his still-held businesses and those of his favorite daughter.
Facing the press, and its inevitable questions about that widely-panned first statement blaming the fatal violence that resulted from a KKK and neo-Nazi rally on “many sides, on many sides,” Trump again characteristically refused to back down, Monday’s teleprompter-ed back down notwithstanding. The Monday statement had included the presidential boilerplate about love and unity, but in the press conference he struck to the more unscripted hostility and divisiveness that has long characterized his interactions with the press. In between gratuitous insults of the press as an institution and certain reporters in particular, Trump defiantly defended his earlier moral equivalence between the KKK and the neo-Nazis and the people they wound up having street fights with, insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside those Confederate-and-Nazi-flag waving Klansmen and neo-Nazis, and worked in some recently rosy economic statistics.
There was enough truth to it to give Trump’s most loyal supporters something to work with, but they should resent that he’s once again made their job of persuading the rest of the country all the more difficult. The mostly placid and hippy-dippy counter-protesters did indeed include some of the violent “antifa” idiots who always show up itching for a fight, and indeed the left has all too often been reluctant and unequivocal in denunciations of their violence, but when they inevitably provoke the next round of unpleasantness their apologists will now be entitled to recall the last time around when the violent idiots on the right started it all and the right was slow and equivocal in its denunciations. We’re sympathetic to the arguments that the south is entitled to acknowledge its troubled history with a certain sort of ambiguous gratitude, and that there’s something unsettlingly Taliban-esque about the new one true faith wiping out any trace of any previous civilization, but we can’t imagine any sort of very fine people who might make these arguments while marching alongside torch-bearing and armed-and-armored Confederate-and-Nazi-flag-waving Klansmen and neo-Nazis.
Another thing we’ve noticed about Trump since his famous escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower is that he’s not much of a student of history, so of course he wondered aloud if the removal of a Gen. Robert E. Lee statue would ultimately lead to the removal of monuments to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who were similarly tainted by the sin of slave ownership. He touched on a true point well worth considering, that America’s all-too-human past should be judged by where it ultimately led and might yet lead rather than all the all-too-human stops it’s made along the way, but Tuesday was a particularly inopportune time in history and Robert E. Lee a particularly wrong example to make the case. Washington was the general who won the country’s independence and established a high example of leadership as its first president, Jefferson was a reluctant slave-holder who wrote the Declaration of Independence that President Abraham cited as his authority to quell the Confederate rebellion and abolish slavery, whereas Lee was the general who led a rebellion against the country that was explicitly explained by the rebels as a defense of chattel slavery, and despite Lee’s many martial and other virtues the aftermath of a deadly riot provoked by the KKK and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists is not a ripe moment to come to his defense.
During that typically disastrous press conference Trump also asserted that the matter of public monuments in such towns as Charlottesville are best left to the local citizenry, and we couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. He seems not to have noticed that the mayor and city council and the general consensus of the picturesque and impeccably liberal town of Charlottesville and its mayor and city council had decided not to have one of its most picturesque parks devoted to the memory of Lee, however, nor that the opposition were almost entirely a bunch of armed-and-armored Klansmen and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists from out of town.
Yes, Trump is quite right that the Washington and Jefferson memorials should forever stand, but when we eventually get around to that argument he won’t have helped the case.
Trump still isn’t backing down, continues to fight back, as ever refuses to leave bad enough alone, and so for now at least we have to admit that it’s worked out pretty well for him so far. He’s indisputably the President of the United States, as he often reminds everyone, and indisputably we are not.
We can’t help but wonder, though, how many fights this tough guy can start and still somehow come out on top. By now Trump is feuding not only with the entirety of the left and most of the middle and the more respectable quarters of the right, along with much of his own administration, but also the Boy Scouts of America and several of top law enforcement officials in America’s most populous cities and a loud segment of the Fortune 500 as well as all the late-night comics, so we’re not surprised the latest poll has Trump at a 34 percent approval rating. Other and older polls have him in the low 40s, but even the most favorable have a majority expressing disapproval, and we doubt that Trump’s never-back-down and always-fight insticts will serve him well. He’ll need those Fortune 500 executives to get his tax agenda passed, and could have used some help from the organized labor honchos and the votes of their hard-hat rank-and file on his infrastructure plans and immigration policies, and we can’t see any compensating votes he’s picked up in the last few days.
Better Trump had stuck to the teleprompter-ed script and left bad enough alone.

— Bud Norman

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