Charlottesville and the failure of moral leadership

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charlottesville protest White house Sept 2017 confront white supremacy

One year ago, President Trump failed the test of moral leadership with his refusal to unequivocally condemn white supremacist violence at a Charlottesville rally that left one young woman dead. Instead, in one of the low points of his presidency, he attempted to create false equivalencies between the protesters and counterprotesters.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last year. The president has continued to use race to divide America. Many of his decisions are driven by his colossal yet fragile ego — all to the detriment of “we the people” — a nation whose citizens include people of diverse races, religions and cultures.

{mosads}The measure of presidential moral leadership is the courage to speak and act in the best interests of the country — regardless of any potential negative political consequences for the Oval Office incumbent. Moral leadership is characterized by what Abraham Lincoln called an appeal to “our better angels.”


Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves, knowing the backlash that would occur. He nevertheless chose to proceed, in order to encourage Americans to live out the creed enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Harry Truman issued an executive order desegregating the military, even though he recognized that his action would be deeply unpopular with many.

John F. Kennedy declared that civil rights were “a moral issue…as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” Following JFK’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson was successful in persuading Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act — something he knew would be politically disadvantageous to the Democratic Party in the south for generations to come.

But presidents have not always exercised moral leadership. When John Adams, otherwise a rock of integrity, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts (which made it harder to become a citizen and outlawed writing or speaking against the government), he stained his reputation and presidency. Trump would, no doubt, have loved this law.

Franklin D. Roosevelt succumbed to the fears about Japanese-Americans by authorizing rounding them up and placing them in internment camps.

In difficult times, it can be easy to blame others for everything that is wrong. It takes courage and moral leadership to think carefully and creatively about policies that will benefit all American society in the face of a rapidly changing world.

Trump has long asserted, “I’m not a racist” and “I’m the least racist person that you have ever met.”

Yet, Trump rode into the White House in large measure based on his fact-free crusade to delegitimize the first African-American president as the figurehead of the “birther movement” asserting that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He opened his presidential campaign charging that Mexican immigrants were “criminals and rapists.” He criticized a federal judge overseeing the fraud case against Trump University because of the judge’s Mexican heritage. He reignited the racial tensions with his attacks against African-American football player Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem, angrily declaring that “maybe he should find a country that works better for him.” When basketball star and black philanthropist LeBron James recently made critical comments of the famously thin-skinned president, Trump lashed back at James’ intelligence.

Trump’s true colors were on clear display a year ago in talking about the violence at Charlottesville. “I think there is blame on both sides,” the president declared. And more amazingly, he said “you also had some very fine people on both sides.”

His equivocal statements created a sense of false equivalency and appealed to his voting base, but not to the entire nation. Race continues to be a divisive issue in America and Trump appears to be doing everything possible to fan the flames of racial fear, rather than appeal for unity — because he knows it works politically with a segment of the population. Unfortunately, the president’s racial rhetoric serves as a license for others to act and speak with racial disrespect.

Presidential moral leadership requires the president to condemn racism — strongly and in all forms. That is the American thing to do.

What the president hasn’t yet realized is that in the long run, history will be “the final judge of our deeds,” as Kennedy stated in his inaugural address. Trump’s searing rhetoric is tearing at the fabric of American democracy, and history will not judge him kindly.

Some will vociferously disagree with this assessment of the president. Many support Trump as an agent to shake up the status quo — and in one respect, he’s done that.

Trump promised to protect the unborn. He’s appointed conservative pro-life judges.

He promised to drain the swamp. It’s a catchy phrase his actions have betrayed.

He promised to keep our nation safe. He has made the country and world a more dangerous place with his bullying bravado, isolationistic actions, and threats of military annihilation.

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it’s important that we separate support for policy positions from aberrational behavior that threatens the stability of the American experiment and the safety of the world.

It’s okay to have differences of political opinion about immigration, health care, defense, and social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. It is dangerous to embrace a leader who fans the flames of racial and political discord.

One year after Charlottesville, the president has yet to rise to the dignity of the office or assert moral leadership. Perhaps the only change since Charlottesville — the president’s behavior is even more unfiltered, unleashed, and unhinged.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of He is the author of a forthcoming book “Fathead: Insults by the Presidents About the Presidents,” and he authored the foreword to “People that Changed the Course of History: The Story of John Quincy Adams 250 Years After His Birth.”

Tags Barack Obama charlottesville rally Donald Trump Mike Purdy White House White supremacy

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