Bill Straub: Fear of change culminated in events in Charlottesville — where is the accountability?

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WASHINGTON – So, how did we get here?

It’s now apparent that the United States of America, the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, has as its president a man who is incompetent and, more importantly, has no moral core.

During the 1950s it was said that certain politicians were “soft on communism’’ because they were insufficiently zealous in their abhorrence of the Russian bear. We, the citizens of America, have now knowingly elected to the highest office in the land Donald J. Trump, an individual who is provably soft on white supremacy, neo-Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan.

It has become nearly impossible to conjoin the words President and Trump in the same sentence without gagging. It is a time of great shame for a country that would install such a man. Accountability is demanded.

The 2016 presidential campaign showed Trump for what he is – a xenophobic bully, a bigot, a misogynist who brags about sexually abusing women, a narcissist. All of those characteristics were on full display. There really is no debate. Yet almost 63 million red-blooded Americans, including more than 1.2 million in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, voted for the man despite incontrovertible evidence he was and is unfit for office.

A myriad of reasons was offered up for this disaster. The most widely held was that white, working class males, primarily in the Midwest, having seen the manufacturing economy collapse, bereft of good paying jobs with no help on the horizon, watching family members or even themselves drift off into OxyContin addiction, sans hope, rose up in righteous anger and voted for a billionaire Republican populist who promised the world and vowed to “drain the swamp’’ that is Washington.

Indeed, it was white people who handed Trump the presidency, even though he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots – and, no, it wasn’t because of illegal immigrants stuffing the ballot box. Given the influence accorded white working class concerns, commentators insisted it was the duty of coastal elites who voted for the Democrat, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to approach these Trump voters with compassion and understanding.

White power was certainly on display. White turnout increased by 2.5 percent nationally in 2016 over the presidential election in 2012. But in some critical battleground states it surged by better than 5 points while the overall African-American vote declined by more than 4 percent. In the end, white non-Hispanic voters preferred Trump over Clinton by 21 percentage points – 58 percent to 37 percent.

That was the ballgame. White voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, feeling forgotten by the powers that be and railing against job losses in manufacturing, mining and other blue collar sectors, made their voices heard.

And it was all hogwash.

The economy didn’t deposit Trump in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it was a subtle yet perceptible shift in the American culture, with Latinos, African-Americans, LGBT folks and other previously dismissed groups rising in influence, thus setting once complacent white folks on edge. They heard Trump’s dog whistle about “Make America Great Again’’ and they interpreted it as a recommitment to white privilege.

A study by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic magazine determined that those experiencing financial woes within the white working class preferred Clinton over Trump. The study confirmed that it was “cultural anxiety — feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment — that best predicted support for Trump.’’

According to The Atlantic, “Trump’s most powerful message, at least among some Americans, was about defending the country’s putative culture.’’

“Sixty-eight percent of white working-class voters said the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence. And nearly half agreed with the statement, “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.” Together, these variables were strong indictors of support for Trump: 79 percent of white working-class voters who had these anxieties chose Trump, while only 43 percent of white working-class voters who did not share one or both of these fears cast their vote the same way.’’

What it all comes down to is white voters proved surprisingly willing to abandon all the standards set for the presidency over 241 years – honesty, integrity, adherence to some identifiable form of morality – for a slob offering a wink and a nod toward resurrecting the culture they view as their birthright.

So here we are, led by a dishonest man with no integrity and no moral bearing who equates the father of the country, George Washington, with traitor Robert E. Lee, who maintains the anti-Nazi protestors gathered in Charlottesville, VA, last Saturday to bear witness against rallying white supremacist were just as bad as the Nazis themselves, and that “many good people’’ could be found in the crowd chanting “Jews will not replace us.’’

It’s accurate that, in his statements, Trump offered boiler plate about racism and hate having no place in society. It was obvious lip service. What he offered was, perhaps, the most despicable statement rendered by a president of the United States in history, especially given the fact that one of the assembled white supremacists, James Alex Fields, formerly of Boone County, is accused of driving his car into a crowd of counter protestors, killing a young woman and injuring at least 19 others.

These people live by the 14 words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.’’ Is it any wonder, therefore, that white supremacist, anti-Semitic forces are feeling empowered? David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan publicly thanked Trump for his “honesty & courage to tell the truth’’ about what occurred in Charlottesville and his condemnation of “leftist terrorists.’’

After all, the alt-right, a loose assemblage of losers dedicated to what they characterize as “white nationalism’’ (re white supremacy and neo-Nazism) has a seat at the White House table in the person of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief White House strategist. Bannon is the former chairman of Breitbart News, which he once described as the “platform for the alt-right.’’ He has sought to convince Trump to lay off any criticism of white supremacy groups, arguing the make up a portion of the president’s political base.

What it all comes down to is white voters proved surprisingly willing to abandon all the standards set for the presidency over 241 years – honesty, integrity, adherence to some identifiable form of morality – for a slob offering a wink and a nod toward resurrecting the culture they view as their birthright.

The alt-right, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan all obviously feel comfortable under the Trump administration, which should tell you all you need to know about what’s happening in the nation these days. America has survived any number of internal crises over its history — the Great Depression and Watergate are just two examples – but the current rise of white supremacy, and the president’s response to same, essentially turning his back on millions, may ultimately prove to be the biggest challenge since the Civil War.

And where are the commonwealth’s leaders through all this? Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, after days of silence, finally allowed as “We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred. There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head.”

No mention of the president and his vile statements.

Then there is Gov. Matt Bevin. St. Matt the Divine, the prophet from New Hampshire, who apparently agrees with Trump that anti-Nazi protestors were as much to blame as the Nazis.

“The fact that people … were encouraged to come in and counter-protest and be just as violent and angry as the hateful people that came in in the first place, people knew what was going to happen, and it’s unfortunate,’’ St. Matt told a West Virginia radio station while offering the usual boiler plate about the evils of racism.

Again, no condemnation of Trump. Profiles in courage, these two.

Years ago, back in middle school, I had a social studies teacher, John Kominentz. He started off every class asking a question, “What is the one thing we’re sure of?’’ The answer the class was expected to offer in unison was “Change.’’

Donald J. Trump is the result of white people’s fear of change, advancing into the unknown, sharing a culture with those of darker skin and different ideas. It’s not going to work. In a sense the rise of the alt-right is akin to the Battle of the Bulge –- the last, desperate and ultimately unsuccessful effort to turn back the tide.

Mr. Kominentz was right. Things change. Get used to it.

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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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3 Comments

  1. JASON COE says:

    to Mr. Straub,

    I enjoyed reading this very much. Excellent writing, as usual.

  2. Ed Horst says:

    Indeed Bill, ” Change” is the one thing we are assured of in life.. Mr Kominentz..

  3. Michael Rosen says:

    Mr. K would be proud….Excellent column, Bill!

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