(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump issued a forceful condemnation on Monday of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members who marched on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend, after enduring 48 hours of heavy criticism across the political aisle over his initially tepid response.
After blaming “many sides” for violence in Virginia on Saturday that led to the death of one woman and the injuring of dozens more, Trump specifically called out “hate groups” on the Right in prepared remarks from the White House.
“We are equal under our constitution,” Trump said. “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
The majority of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill and dozens of GOP governors and mayors expressed alarm over the president’s first response to the event, in which white nationalists seeking to assert America’s heritage as white and Christian gathered in the thousands. The targets of their chants were Jews, African- Americans and immigrants of color.
At the climax of a tense day, one man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, maiming 19 and killing one 32-year-old woman, named Heather Heyer. The suspected perpetrator of that act wasdenied bond in court on Monday morning, and one of his former teachers told the press that he has long espoused an affinity for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi cause.
Amid the chaos, Trump declined to name any hate groups behind the events, instead spreading blame for the protests to those who are the targets of racial animus. And he emphasized the importance of “cherishing” our history, which was interpreted by those running neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi groups and websites as permission to proceed.
After Trump delivered his second speech on the topic on Monday, his critics wondered aloud why it took him three full days to recognize the role hate groups played in the event. Trump declined to tweet any reference to them over the weekend, but did go after an African-American businessman who resigned from the president’s manufacturing council in protest over the Charlottesville response.
Nevertheless, Trump’s second set of remarks amount to his most forceful condemnation of racism and hate crime since his late entry into American politics.
“We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law,” Trump said. “Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”
The FBI and Justice Department have opened civil rights and domestic terrorism investigations into Saturday’s events. Trump met with the heads of both institutions before his Monday speech.
Jewish groups were particularly alarmed by the president’s initial silence on neo-Nazis, who chanted “you will not replace us – Jews will not replace us” during their Virginia gathering. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League both called on Trump to explicitly condemn those responsible for the rally.
Trump has repeatedly faced calls to condemn these groups ever since launching his presidential campaign two years ago. White nationalist, neo-Nazi and KKK chapters and websites rallied around Trump as their standard- bearer over his anti-immigrant policies, and considered him an ally after his hiring of Steve Bannon, a former editor at the online outlet Breitbart, a platform for the far-Right.
“In our post-Holocaust global society, there is no room for racism or antisemitism,” said Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in a formal statement. “The anti-Jewish ideology of the Nazis was a precursor to the eventual murderous policy and extermination of six million Jews. These images are yet another reminder that we must remain vigilant about educating the public regarding hatred and xenophobia.”
Several Israeli leaders spoke out on the violence and imagery, as well, including Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and politician now serving as chairman of the Jewish Agency. “I am deeply concerned by the expressions of antisemitism and other forms of racism and hatred exhibited at the neo-Nazi rally this past weekend in Charlottesville, and I am horrified by the death of a protester at the hands of one of the marchers,” said Sharansky. “There is no place for such hate speech or violence in any democratic society, and I am confident that American authorities will do everything in their power to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Sharansky referred to the displays of antisemitism by the demonstrators, saying that “no student, Jewish or otherwise, should feel threatened at his or her university, and Jewish students at the University of Virginia should know that the local Hillel staff is available to them at all times, as is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at UVA.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not publicly reacted to the protest.