Trump’s Moral Equivalence Trap

Trump’s Moral Equivalence Trap

The moral bankruptcy of the ‘many sides’ argument.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate — and a columnist for National Review and the New York Post.

US President Donald Trump speaks speaks to the press at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. Getty Images
US President Donald Trump speaks speaks to the press at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. Getty Images

Hate and terrorism don’t lend themselves to nuance. That’s why those seeking to parse President Trump’s various statements about what happened in Charlottesville, Va., in such a way as to validate his claim that the violence there was the fault of “many sides” or that there were “very fine people” among both those protesting a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee and the counter-protesters are deeply wrong.

Even if there were some violently inclined left-wingers present in that college town that weekend, the correct response to a torch-light procession of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans, followed by a vehicular terrorist attack that claimed the life of an innocent counter-protester can never be to assert moral equivalence between the two sides in Charlottesville. (The president disingenuously denied in an early morning tweet today that he had made such a moral equivalence.)

We live in an increasingly bifurcated society in which left and right have ceased viewing the other side as fellow citizens and see them instead as trying to destroy their liberties. In such an atmosphere, rational thinking disappears and is replaced by a willingness to demonize opponents answer any argument by pointing to bad behavior by opponents. Politics therefore becomes a form of warfare a zero-sum game in which either giving or receiving quarter from the enemy is both weakness and a betrayal.

White supremacists, foreground, face off against counter-protesters, top, at the entrance to Emancipation Park during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017. JTA

Trump’s unwillingness to consistently single out neo-Nazis, the KKK or assorted alt-right extremists for opprobrium — even when they are clearly the guilty parties as they were in Charlottesville — is explained by some on the left as proof that he sympathizes with them. Trump is no anti-Semite or Nazi but, like many on the right, he thinks the liberal media establishment won’t tell the truth about left-wing extremism and is out to smear him by claiming alt-right haters were more than a tiny fraction of the nearly 63 million who voted for him. That’s why he instinctively rebels against efforts to get him to play the role of national healer since he views such pieties as surrender to a liberal narrative that is implicitly aimed at delegitimizing his presidency. The same reason explains why his fans dismiss all critiques of his behavior no matter how egregious it might have been.

But to understand what motivates him and others reflexively responding to Charlottesville by pointing out bad things the left has done is not to excuse it.

What happened in Virginia was started by far-right groups that have embraced a symbol of the Confederacy as an excuse to vent racism and anti-Semitism. They were the ones who organized the rally and staged a neo-Nazi parade. That and the subsequent murderous car attack render irrelevant the discussion about the merits of statue removal or whether some left-wing anarchists or Antifa (anti-fascist) members present among the counter-protestors might have also behaved badly.

White supremacists meet in Charlottesville, Va. on August 12, 2017. JTA

There’s nothing wrong with Trump or anyone else calling out left-wing political violence and anti-Semitism. Both are, as we have seen in numerous recent instances and the rise of the BDS movement, real and deserve to be denounced. It is equally true that the debate about whether to purge public squares of Confederate statues raises questions about whether revisionists will demand the same treatment for slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson or even manifest destiny advocates like Theodore Roosevelt. Personally, I think a rational society is capable of distinguishing between monuments honoring patriotism and those erected to bolster racism but these are not taboo topics.

But when faced with Klan/Nazi incitement and violence, any hesitation in singling out those responsible for Charlottesville or efforts to change the subject are morally bankrupt.

In other contexts, most conservatives have little trouble viewing hate and terror with moral clarity. When friends of Israel read accounts of Palestinian terror that rationalize murder, ignore incitement or places the victims and the Israeli police and army seeking to stop the violence on the same moral plane with those perpetrating it, they rightly cry foul.

When Jews are slaughtered for being Jews, we have no patience for those who want to contextualize the discussion with talk about alleged Israeli wrongdoing in order to distract us from what has happened.
The same rules should apply to Charlottesville. When it comes to Nazi hate and violence, there should be no talk of “many sides” or the existence of allegedly “very fine people” who stand with the haters.

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