The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia has overwhelmed the news cycle and raised concerns about how deeply white supremacy runs in contemporary American culture. What many citizens thought was dead and gone in our allegedly post-racial society, which had elected a nonwhite President in both 2008 and 2012, now seems stronger than ever. Some pundits and commentators are even wondering if the growing racial and cultural tensions could spark a new civil war in coming years. Although the conflict would not be of the magnitude of organized armies battling in the open, as the U.S. experienced between 1861 and 1865, analysts say civil unrest could result in mobilization of the National Guard.
Basically, there is a radical fringe out there, and President Donald Trump is riling them up. Already under mass media assault for refusing to sufficiently (in the eyes of many) condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Trump has stirred the hornet’s nest even further by declaring that the removal of Confederate statues is a bad idea. The “beautiful statues,” as Trump referred to them via Twitter, should not be taken down, lest we also begin removing statues of earlier slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. While the controversial President may have a point about some of the Founding Fathers owning slaves just like the Confederate elite, it is unlikely that his attempt at snark won over any voters.
Democrats are seizing on Trump’s recent tacit support of white supremacists to paint the commander-in-chief into a corner. U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are urging fellow legislators to remove statues of Confederate leaders and slavery sympathizers in Washington, D.C. Apparently, ten such statues remain, and Republicans have argued that it should be up to the states to remove the statues in question that represent them.
But hiding behind the bland shield of “states’ rights” may not work in the era of Trump. When the President tried to insist that both sides in the Charlottesville conflict were equally culpable, he was declaring a moral equivalency between the white supremacists and those who protested them. His refusal to condemn the white supremacists puts the GOP in an awkward position.
With each incendiary move, Donald Trump is making it harder and harder for Republicans to remain in the center. They are either with him, or against him. They either condemn the white supremacists, as Trump failed to adequately do, or they stand with the President’s statements. Democrats and the mainstream media will fight tooth and nail to prevent Republicans from remaining on the fence.
Some Republicans have shown signs of breaking with the President over his Charlottesville and Confederate statue comments, including U.S. Senators Bob Corker (TN) and Jeff Flake (AZ). These two legislators join a growing crowd of Republican malcontents in the Senate, including Rand Paul (KY), Lindsey Graham (SC), John McCain (AZ), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Susan Collins (ME). Given Trump’s recent faux pas, it is almost guaranteed that he will make no headway on tax reform, which is his next legislative goal. Despite his political party having control of Washington, Trump’s toxicity has rendered it virtually impotent.
However, the impotence and infighting of the GOP could worsen tensions among citizens. Trump voters will begin attacking Democrats and centrist Republicans alike, accusing them of being unpatriotic for refusing to support the President. Centrist Republicans who criticize the President will be branded turncoats and traitors. The alt-right will not go quietly into that good night, and America’s tensions will get worse before they get better.
By refusing to moderate his temper or turn off his Twitter, Donald Trump is forcing centrists to pick a side. Are you for removing statues that glorify slavery and the institutions that fought to preserve it, or do you repudiate their presence? Incensed by Trump’s continued provocations, leftists will no longer give centrists the benefit of the doubt. Still smarting from November’s unexpected loss, Democrats are out for blood.
The alt-right, of course, will not take this lying down. As we saw in Charlottesville, the alt-right loves the attention. The more they are condemned and attacked, the more they can claim they are being victimized. They will try to convince other, more mainstream conservatives that they, too, are being persecuted. “Look at what they are doing to our culture, our values,” they will tell their fair-weather Republican friends. “Will you stand with us, or become leftists like them?” Some of this rhetoric might even be featured on the President’s personal Twitter feed.
Most of the coming battles will be verbal, but some will become physical. All of it will be egged on by an immature President who is obsessed with proving that he cannot be made to yield. It’s a game of chicken, and the only losers are the citizens.