CHARLOTTESVILLE – President Donald Trump lashed out again on Thursday at critics of his response to a white-nationalist rally that took place last weekend, defending the rights of protesters to preserve Confederate “culture” and iconography throughout the US South.
The president targeted senators from his own party on Twitter and said a campaign to remove statues of former rebel leaders who fought to split the US and preserve the institution of slavery was “foolish” and “sad.”
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and nationalists marched on Charlottesville last Saturday, in protest of plans to remove the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the 1860s secessionist armed forces. They say statues such as this one represent white Christian American heritage, and that efforts to get rid of them amount to an attack on white culture.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it,” tweeted the president early on Thursday morning.
“Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?” Trump asked, referring to the commander and one of his most prominent generals, followed by two founding fathers of the very Union the Confederacy sought to destroy.
Trump is facing heavy bipartisan backlash for claiming that “both sides” of the events here were to blame for the violence that resulted, which claimed the life of a 32-year old woman, Heather Heyer, and wounded dozens more.
Republican and Democratic senators alike claimed he was suggesting moral equivalence between fascists and the groups in their crosshairs.
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In particular, Trump slammed two Republican senators – Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona – for questioning his moral authority based on his response to Charlottesville.
“I seek to move our nation, my state, and our party forward – toward the light– not back to the darkness,” Graham said in a public statement to Trump on Thursday.
“Because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy, you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country,” Graham continued. “For the sake of our nation – as our president – please fix this. History is watching us all.”
A vigil took place Wednesday night at the University of Virginia, where thousands of locals and college students gathered on the campus in a call for equal rights. A blanket of candlelight stretched from the university’s storied rotunda down to a statue of Homer as the crowd sang “We Shall Overcome,” “Amazing Grace,” and “This Land is Your Land.” The event was not promoted on social media for security reasons.
Their calls for peace and love starkly contrasted with the march on this same ground six nights earlier, when fascist protesters with tiki torches claimed the Virginian land to be theirs by blood. “You will not replace us,” those protesters declared: “Jews will not replace us.”
This time, a woman offered a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” A young teenager cried in the arms of a guardian between the campus’ white columns, his candle extinguished.
This city and its campus are ready to move on, with students and their families arriving on Friday for the start of the academic year. But posters of “C’ville” hearts still fill the windows, and the street on which Heyer was murdered by a 20-year-old man with neo-Nazi ties remains closed, filled with flowers.
“You don’t change the past by tearing it down, you do it by making contributions,” said Joe Cravens, an alumnus of The University of Virgina who visited Emancipation Park on Thursday afternoon, host of the city’s controversial Lee statue – to offer a prayer.
The fight over statues and what they represent is not over here, and won’t end here: Local officials in Kentucky, Texas, Alabama and Georgia are preparing their communities for potential Confederate statue removals, and accompanying unrest.
Criticism of the president’s response to the crisis was virtually unanimous among Jewish American groups, and grew only louder throughout Wednesday evening. The American Jewish Committee said Trump had “abdicated” his role as a moral leader and unifier-in-chief, following on criticisms from the Anti-Defamation League and Israel Policy Forum. Even the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has never criticized Trump on the record, called for “greater moral clarity” in his stance toward neo-Nazi fascists.
Trump did condemn “neo-Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists” on Monday.
But he claimed there were equally vile and violent groups on the “alt-left”– referring to groups that came to Charlottesville to counterprotest white nationalists in defense of minority rights, albeit through both peaceful and militant means.
“There can be no moral ambiguity,” Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said on Tuesday. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for.”
European leaders continued to express concern over the racial crisis, fearing Charlottesville was simply one flashpoint at the beginning of a series.
“The vision of Nazi flags, the very symbol of antisemitism, flowing freely in your country, which has been the symbol of Democracy and the fight against Nazism, is just inconceivable and unacceptable,” Francis Kalifat, president of CRIF, France’s umbrella organization for Jewish organizations, wrote to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“We have seen a resurgence of antisemitism all over the world over the past few years, especially in France and in Europe,” Kalifat wrote. “In face of such evil, you have always shown concern and solidarity. It is now my turn to reciprocate.”
Trump concluded his tweeting on Thursday morning by characterizing Confederate statues as “incomparably” beautiful.
“Think about all the horrible things that Palestinian terrorists have done to the Jews,” Cravens said, recently off a religious voyage to Jerusalem with the Bible now in his hand. “But what would happen if Muslim streets and monuments were renamed?” “If you’re going to coexist,” Cravens concluded, “to an extent, you have to tolerate the other side.”
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