Why Trump's Comments About Charlottesville Matter

It can be dangerous when the president doesn't call it like it is.

Posted Aug 13, 2017

Over the weekend there was bloodshed in Charlottesville, Virginia. Torch-bearing white supremacists gathered to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the University of Virginia's Emancipation Park on Friday night. They were met by non-violent counter-protesters and responded with violence. Protests and clashes resumed on Saturday. It all came to a head when a white supremacist allegedly drove his car into the crowd, killing one woman and wounding many more.

In response President Trump issued statements on Saturday, both on Twitter and in person, calling for the nation to "come together as one" and "condemn all that hate stands for." He denounced "this egregious display of bigotry and violence on many sides--on many sides." He did not decry the violence as terrorism. Yet the assault with the car resembled recent attacks labelled terrorism in Europe. He also did not call out the instigators as white supremacists. This is both worrisome and dangerous.

 Don Sniegowski/Flickr
Source: Don Sniegowski/Flickr

Certainly, the alt-right is a significant part of Trump's core constituency. But it's concerning that the President of the United States appears unwilling to denounce a movement that is becoming more and more willing to openly associate itself with neo-Nazi rhetoric and symbolism. There are lines that should not be crossed, no matter how many votes are to be had. And implicitly condoning the views espoused by those marching in Charlottesville over the weekend in support of a monument to the Confederate general is one of them.

Trump may not personally agree with the views of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, but his reluctance to immediately say so leaves one guessing. (The subsequent clean-up efforts on Sunday by the administration's staff are not likely to allay fears.) Many millions of Americans must be wondering whether their president recognizes their rights as citizens of this country. Does Trump believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all? If he does, why not say so? This weekend would have been as good a time as any to express, as some prominent Republicans did, that there is no room in this great country for the bigotry on display in Virginia.

There are several dangers presented by Trump's unwillingness to call out the spectacle of white supremacy in Charlottesville for what it was. First, there are the documented psychological and physiological ill effects that often result from perceived encounters with racism. These include PTSD, anxiety, depression, hypertension cardiovascular disease, and obesity. And these encounters do not always have to be personal to result in trauma or other negative effects. Some of these effects can be experienced when people learn of racist encounters suffered by others. Recommended coping strategies include acknowledging the existence of racism and validating the worth of those oppressed on the basis of their race. Both were missing from Trump's initial comments about Charlottesville.

A second danger comes from the role that expected social stigma plays in inhibiting certain behaviors and the way in which perceived authoritative approval undermines this. As I have written about here before, there is evidence linking Trump's 2016 campaign and victory to increased willingness to engage in behavior that was, until recently, widely expected to be met with outrage and denunciation. It doesn't help when the president has engaged in some such behaviors himself (when he called Mexicans rapists or bragged about groping women) or when he has been willing to implicitly condone others who do so (his comments about Charlottesville). Does this amount to the highest elected official in our country sanctioning immoral behavior?

It may not matter whether Trump really meant to condone this behavior by not singling it out for strong rebuke. If some people take Trump to endorse white supremacist violence, this is likely to lead to future wrongs. When we expect to be stigmatized for acting in certain ways, this inhibits our acting on any desires we may have to do so. The condemnation of others serves as an important check on our darkest impulses. But when this inhibition is removed, we are more likely to act on them. Condoning bad behavior, thus, effectively promotes it. We can expect the perception that Trump's initial comments about Charlottesville implicitly sanctioned white supremacist violence to beget more of the same. It's a chilling thought, that the blood spilled in Charlottesville may not have time to dry before the violence spreads.

It is important to note that neither of these dangers is undercut by the President's statements on Monday denouncing racism and the white supremacists violence in Charlottesville. The damage may already have been done. It took two days for Trump to say what needed saying immediately. The delay may be taken by some to signal that he endorses the violence and his later comments were a matter of him bowing to political pressure. The inhibition on future violence may still be removed. For those who suffer race-based trauma due to events like those in Charlottesville over the weekend, the President's overdue statement is not likely to alleviate it. And the chasm, both in time and in substance, between his initial comments and those issued on Monday is only likely to further exacerbate any ill effects.

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