Americans have come to recognize that President Donald Trump’s white nationalist rhetoric takes more than a moral and political toll on the country. His words inspire and are used to justify the violent conduct of white nationalists who decide to take up arms against other Americans. The result is death, mayhem and fear.
Naturally, the way to hold Trump accountable is to clearly identify his role in spurring white nationalist terrorism and then to vote him out of office. But what about Hogan Gidley, the Trump spokesman who attacks former president Barack Obama and rationalizes Trump’s conduct; or press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who whips up a phony controversy about Dayton Democrats’ characterization of the president’s visit; or billionaire Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins and an investor in SoulCycle, who hosts a mammoth fundraiser for Trump and insists he agrees with Trump on some issues but not on others; or Trump donors?
What about Fox News, which puts on the air hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, whose rhetoric mirrors and amplifies white nationalism? Then there are the Republican toadies, the right-wing pundits and the GOP operatives who ignore or minimize or defend Trump day in and day out. And yes, there are the voters who now, knowing full well what he is, are about to back his reelection.
Let’s start by acknowledging that everyone is responsible for the person they choose to work for, the candidate they give money to, the statements they make or don’t make. Your vote is secret, but your public actions, including publicly disclosed donations, are not. This is no ordinary president, and therefore supporting him has serious ramifications. It’s no defense to say, “You cannot criticize people who serve in government” or “You shouldn’t shame people for political donations.” Of course you should, if the candidate/officeholder is tearing down our democracy and contributing to white nationalist sentiment.
We also need once and for all to dump the “But Gorsuch” and “But tax cuts” rationales for defending Trump. Policy actions that any Republican would have pursued do not justify endangering fellow Americans, savaging our democratic norms, destroying the notion of objective truth or undermining the rule of law. Support, like money, is fungible. You buy into the whole package and are responsible for it when you decide to support Trump.
Furthermore, we need to reject the “whataboutism” that stunningly still gets used to defend Trump’s conduct — as if any other politician on the planet has behaved as irresponsibly as Trump or directly fomented white nationalism. (“Then Democrats are responsible for . . .” or “But Hillary Clinton would have . . ..”) No, Democrats have not defended and consciously given cover to white nationalists, and Clinton isn’t president, never took the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin over our own intelligence agencies and never committed 10 categories of conduct that a special counsel found could amount to obstruction of justice.
And that leaves how to treat the enablers, those directly and indirectly contributing to Trump’s conduct. We could take the position that anyone not opposing him is responsible and therefore should be shunned from “polite society” and boycotted, but of course there are degrees of responsibility. (No, this is not encouraging harassment; it’s recommending disassociation.) The operative who directly works and lies for Trump is more culpable than the spineless congressman who refuses to speak up or the voter who still supports him because, by gosh, we have to do something about the border. The point, however, is that all must answer for their actions.
Private employers shouldn’t hire someone who has been a known liar for a white nationalist (if for no other reason than it is bad for business); the congressman should be voted out. Our reaction to Trump enablers should be proportionate to their own conduct. No responsible company should advertise on Tucker Carlson’s show and should face boycotts if they do; the board of Fox News’s parent company, including Paul Ryan, should be confronted at every turn about its platform for white nationalists. While I normally don’t recommend tearing apart personal relationships over politics, frankly, MAGA-hat wearers might find they’ve lost friends and the respect or affection of neighbors, colleagues and fellow congregants. They, too, have to live with their choices.
What’s important to remember is that no one gets absolution for his or her conduct during a critical time in our history, especially if the person never expressed remorse for enabling a figure such as Trump. After he’s gone, we’ll need to make peace with our fellow Americans, but we need not forget or forgive those without whom he could not have maintained his grip on power and spread his hateful ideology.