Writing in his column in the Aug. 14 issue of the Chicago Tribune, Rex Huppke said that when incidents like the Charlottesville protest march and tragic outcome occur, we as citizens of the U.S. speak our regret by the self-assuring claim that such behaviors are disjunctive flukes in our national life because, by now, after centuries of efforts at social advancement, we have become “better than this.”  

But Mr. Huppke’s rejoinder is that, in fact, we as a nation are not “better than this,” the unequivocal evidence being the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and the Charlottesville event, itself.

Nearly 50 % of the U.S. electorate voted for a person who unabashedly, publicly made campaign trail statements that violated nearly all the central moral/ethical and religious principles we claim to affirm, regardless of our chosen religious or philosophical affiliation – statements that made clear his stance on the legitimate inclusion of the diverse identities of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, et. al. that comprise our national community.  He was completely open and transparent about who he was.

We elected him anyway. And since being in office, he has shown complete consistency with whom he showed himself to be while a candidate. Mr. Trump’s response to Charlottesville reveals even more deeply and disturbingly the breadth and depth of his moral/ethical deficiency, relative to occupying the leadership of a nation. And the crowd of demonstrators in Charlottesville included a cross-section of young citizens, without “hoods” or other concealments of their identity, showing their comfort level with coming out, their sense of permission to express vociferously their positions that, in fact, are not limited to them and the hate-mongering organizations that support them. The protestors came from across states and, seemingly, from across social categories.  And neither they nor Mr. Trump are apologetic that three people died and several more were injured as a result of the protest. And so, as columnist Huppke says,

“Trump causes us to be no better than all of this. And the people who make excuses for him cause us to be no better than all of this. The people he has aligned himself with, in the White House and outside, cause us to be no better than all of this.”

Buttressing Mr. Huppke’s point, one must remember that, despite its historic low, the president’s national approval level is at 36%, which means that one in three respondents affirm him and what he stands for. Worse, his approval rating among Republicans is 80%. And while his unfitness for national leadership is patently clear, and daily made more transparent, the Congress has yet to initiate steps to remove him from office, or even to censure him.

A few Republican voices are beginning to be heard in push back to the administration, particularly in regard to the president’s response to Charlottesville. And it is heartening to witness that across the nation people are speaking out, organizing rallies, crafting T-shirts, bumper stickers, lawn signs, and other forms of resistance to Trumpism.

If we are truly to be “better than this,” though, we must follow the lead-in that Mr. Trump surely inadvertently gave in his Aug. 15 extemporaneous defense of the Nazi rally in Charlottesville. First, he asserted the prerogative of the “nice people” of the Alt-Right who were there to express their objection to the removal of a monument that reflected their “heritage,” the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. As president, Mr. Trump should remember his oath of office, that commits him to “defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Robert E. Lee led a military campaign against the United States, attacking its fortifications, and was ultimately responsible for as many as 800,000 lives, plus casualties, and enormous economic devastation. He was a “domestic enemy.” Should there be monuments in the public square, at public expense, to an enemy of the state? That is an absurdity roughly equivalent to London and other cities in England erecting statues to George Washington.

Secondly, the heritage whose symbols the protestors want to sustain is one of centuries-long human degradation and brutality – U.S. chattel slavery – unprecedented in the history of the world. That is the heritage to which they want a monument? A heritage in which they want to nurture pride of social/historical lineage?  

Even the 21st-century descendants of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Andrew Jackson have issued statements supporting the removal of statues and monuments to their forbears. Memorials to horrendous, disgraceful historical events would better be venues for lament and transforming the future than symbol of pride. The Holocaust museums that have emerged in various cities are based on the notion of “lest we forget,” not “let’s celebrate the memory.”

Thirdly – and here is where Mr. Trump’s comments opened a discussion that he surely did not intend – the president sought to show a contradictory inequity in the support for removing Lee’s statue by saying that he heard that the removal of the statue of Andrew Jackson was under consideration. And “What’s next?” he queried, the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson monuments? My response was, “Well, let’s talk about that.”

True, these three persons made signal contributions to our national existence and its flourishing, and they also had deeply troubling elements in their public and personal stories. So rather than the mention of their names being a prima facie counterpoint to the argument for removal of the Lee statuary, it rather should be a point of entry for discussion as to the basis for these persons being positively memorialized in all they ways that they are: public streets and building named after them, their faces on U.S. currency, national holidays, etc.

The 1830s is remembered by Southeastern Native American peoples as the time of initiation of their forced removal from their tribal lands to areas in the Southwestern U.S., termed by the U.S. as “Indian Territory.” Sparked by the discovery of gold in Georgia and the desire of southeastern whites for lebensraum – space to expand settlement – the federal government authorized U.S. presidents to forcefully remove Native peoples from their ancestral lands to land west of the Mississippi River owned by the U.S. In spite of the Cherokee people of Georgia having adopted a democratic constitution and establishing a supreme court, living under a treaty of peace with the U.S., and in spite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the sovereign right of the Cherokee of Georgia to remain on their lands, President Andrew Jackson defied the court decision and ordered the Cherokee removed, forcing them walk overland the 1,200 miles to what is now Oklahoma.

In the hundreds of holding forts in which the Cherokees were forcibly gathered prior to departure, sanitary conditions were horrific. Women and children were raped and killed. Thousands died from hunger and exposure in the course of the subsequent journey, the 11-year ordeal known by Native peoples today as the Trail of Tears. This was among Andrew Jackson’s signal “accomplishments” as president.  

As to Washington and Jefferson, the typical holder of enslaved persons in the 18th and 19th centuries U.S. owned 20 or fewer persons. Both Washington and Jefferson owned hundreds, ranking them among the largest participants in slavery in our history. And though they had the power to do so, neither emancipated their human property, neither during their lifetimes nor in their wills.

Styling himself as something of a scientist, Mr. Jefferson studied the human species and wrote pieces in which he marginally included Native peoples in the human category but raised questions about the validity of African-descended peoples’ being legitimately included. Nonetheless, as is now well-known, Mr. Jefferson maintained an active conjugal relationship with one of his enslaved, Sally Hemmings. Many of the descendants of that union are buried in a family plot in Madison, Wis., their names engraved on the grave-markers. Several others survive today to tell the story of their presidential lineage.

Should we grace our public places and the emblems of the republic with the names and images of oppressors of Native Peoples and quintessential enslavers, as the Charlottesville demonstrators want to retain for their “heritage” heroes and heroines? If we decide to “take the [historical] bitter with the sweet,” should we not also honestly, candidly acknowledge the bitter for what it was and for how it has continued to express itself in our national life and laws, our social customs and mores, our values and modes of relating to the variety of identities in our midst?

Xenophobic nativism and hostility to Jews and Catholics did not end with the dissolution of the Know Nothing Party of the 19th century. The Emancipation Proclamation did not expunge anti-black animus from our communal sensibilities; it was transmuted into the formation of the White Knights of the KKK and the Jim Crow laws that openly informed our social practices and judicial proceedings until recent memory and still subterraneously guide how we legislate, vote, and structure our institutional life.

According to public records, the father of our president allegedly was arrested at a KKK rally in Queens, N.Y., in 1927, but in 2017, a Charlottesville demonstration leader says he is “glad” the female counter-protester died and others were hit by the murder vehicle. And the president of the U.S. refuses to genuinely, unequivocally denounce the violent expression of Nazism and white supremacy.

The difficult, inconveniently truthful picture is that back in the day, and in this day, public leadership acts on what it discerns to be the animating, close-the-curtain-and-mark-the-ballot will of her/his constituents. That explains the laggard condemnatory response of national legislators to Mr. Trump’s blatant, unbridled expression of white nationalist, racialist values.  The story of our nation, honestly faced, is that we have not been pervasively and consistently “better than this,” though through contentious and costly – sometimes mortal – struggle we have progressively leaned toward being so.

Therefore, as columnist Rex Huppke says,

So it falls on us. We can’t keep repeating “We’re better than this.” We have to vow to become better. To make hate like what we saw in Charlottesville so utterly unacceptable that the monsters run back into hiding and never return. Shame them. Out them. Shout them down. Use whatever platform you have to make sure people know these views will never be acceptable. Push your lawmakers. Demand that known white nationalists presently in the White House – like senior advisers Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon and White House aide Sebastian Gorka – be removed. Trump can stay silent. Those who support him can do the same. … But silence from the rest of us is unacceptable. Speak up. Scream out. Take a stand. We are not, at the moment, better than this. But we sure need to be.