White House Charlottesville talking points: a “balanced” take on an unbalanced issue

Photo: A group of counterprotesters who identified themselves as antifa, or anti-fascists, rested during a rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. Credit Edu Bayer for The New York Times

The Trump White House sees itself as balanced and unifying on the violence in Charlottesville. Its talking points are full of true facts and balance, but on this issue, no balanced perspective exists.

These are the facts about Charlottesville:

  • A mass of protestors who self-identify as the “alt-right” came to Charlottesville and shouted white supremacist slogans. How many? I have found no accurate count in any of the stories about it. Some were armed with semi-automatic rifles.
  • There were also counter-protesters (also known as “antifa” or anti-fascist protestors). Some were armed with clubs.
  • James Fields, an alt-right protester, apparently ran over and killed Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, and injured dozens of others.

The president is under attack for his comments after the protest. He criticized violence “on many sides” immediately after the protest, and was slow to condemn the alt-right groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis by name. His failure to come out more strongly and unilaterally against bigotry and hate has put him at odds with corporate CEOs, who deserted his advisory councils yesterday, and congressional leaders like John McCain.

Analyzing the White House talking points

In the wake of all of this, the White House Press Office distributed talking points to Republicans in Congress, which somebody promptly leaked to The Atlantic. How they look depends entirely on your point of view. If you believe there are two sides to this story, both similarly responsible for violence, then Trump’s talking points make perfect sense. If you believe the bigots and haters in the alt-right are the problem and the counter-protests are less important, then the talking points seem absurd.

Talking points are supposed to be biased towards one side. In fact, I could find no lies in the talking points, but they omit many other facts. See for yourself. My commentary follows.


The President was entirely correct — both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility.

Commentary: There was violence on both sides. Are both sides an equal threat?

  • Despite the criticism, the President reaffirmed some of our most important Founding principles: We are equal in the eyes of our Creator, equal under the law, and equal under our Constitution.
    • He has been a voice for unity and calm, encouraging the country to “rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that brings us together as Americans.”
    • He called for the end of violence on all sides so that no more innocent lives would be lost.

Commentary: President Trump sees himself balanced in criticizing violence on both sides. It’s a stretch to see him as “a voice for unity and calm” given the anger his comments have created across the political spectrum. His calls for an end to violence are impotent, since the causes of this violence are immune to any statement by Trump.

  • The President condemned – with no ambiguity – the hate groups fueled by bigotry and racism over the weekend, and did so by name yesterday, but for the media that will never be enough.
    • The media reacted with hysteria to the notion that counter-protesters showed up with clubs spoiling for a fight, a fact that reporters on the ground have repeatedly stated.
    • Even a New York Times reporter tweeted that she “saw club-wielding “antifa” beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”
    • The local ACLU chapter also tweeted that

Commentary: Trump believes he is bring balance to the argument by focusing on the violence of the counter-protestors, which has gotten much less attention.

  • We should not overlook the facts just because the media finds them inconvenient:
    • From cop killing and violence at political rallies, to shooting at Congressmen at a practice baseball game, extremists on the left have engaged in terrible acts of violence.
    • The President is taking swift action to hold violent hate groups accountable.
      • The DOJ has opened a civil rights investigation into this weekend’s deadly car attack.
      • Last Thursday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it had completed the largest prosecution of white supremacists in the nation’s history.

Commentary: This equates the protests and violence on the left with the protests and violence on the right.

  • Leaders and the media in our country should join the president in trying to unite and heal our country rather than incite more division.

Commentary: This is a fascinating statement. Is criticizing both sides equally “trying to unite and heal our country?” Is calling out white nationalists as evil “inciting division?” The alt-right is full of hate groups. Its opponents have plenty of hate for those they see as fascists. Is validating the choice to hate, on either side, uniting or dividing?

The fundamental problem is that there is no balanced perspective

Breaking down down White House statements, both in these talking points and in Trump’s remarks, gets you to a simple statement of his point of view. I’d state it this way:

“The protesters in Charlottesville have a legitimate right to their opinion. There are two sides here. Elements of both sides are violent. The problem is the violence, not the opinions.”

If both sides were equal, this would be a balanced perspective. But there is really no middle ground here.

If you believe the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacy, bigotry, generalizations about blacks and Jews, and the entire alt-right perspective are wrong, then you see everything they do as pernicious hate speech that will inevitably lead to violence.

If you believe their opinions have an element of truth, you see what happened as the activities of a few violent people at the front of a protest of white people attempting to air legitimate grievances.

Despite what Trump says, no unity is possible — people pretty much believe one of these narratives or the other. There’s no middle ground to stand on.

We can continue to suppress the angry speech of white supremacists. It’s easy to believe you can define which speech is offensive. But I worry about further steps down that path. Will the government suppress my speech next?

Alternatively, we can allow the white supremacists to continue their offensive protests and watch violence continue to break out everywhere they and their opponents show up. I don’t want to live in an America torn apart by riots and hatred, either.

There are no good paths here, only less bad ones. Navigating this moment in history requires not balance, but leadership. I’m still waiting for that leadership to arrive.

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  1. The Paradox of Tolerance (described by philosopher Karl Popper) is simple: A tolerant society should be tolerant by default, with one exception: it should not tolerate intolerance.

    1. Which includes intolerance of intolerance, so both sides really are wrong! 😉
      That’s the trouble with paradoxes – they disappear up their own fundament.

    2. His Bannonism propels 45 to wink at neo-Nazis while he chastises the mobilized left, an obvious ploy to increase support from left-fearing, middle-of-the-road Americans as his popularity among some of them tailspins. Trump wouldn’t have a single Nazi visit his New Jersey club for a shrimp sandwich, but he’ll use them readily, even, if need be, as his palace guard, should Congress try to remove him. 45 is not opposed to violence or to Nazis. He’s not even opposed to the left. He’s simply a vile, unprincipled opportunist. Josh, you said one thing I can embrace: “There’s no middle ground to stand on.” America lost 420,000 citizens in the war to bring down Nazi intolerance. Their sacrifice was noble, because Nazism IS intolerable. But 45 doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about the 6 million who were murdered under the Nazi regime, either. He doesn’t know the difference between a Confederate and a Canadian. His narcissism is all-consuming. Why should American society tolerate intolerance? Why should it allow random desecrations, beatings and murders to occur, and hundreds of rogue racist and anti-Semitic militias to form? William Buckley once asked, if one man pushes a grandmother under an oncoming bus, and another pushes a grandmother out of the way of an oncoming bus, should we condemn both as equally evil for pushing grandmothers? Trump would reply, Yes! and, oh, how much can I get for my grandmother?

      1. This is just silly — a handful of Neo-Nazis don’t remotely approach the situation in 1930s Germany. The brownshirted Stormtroopers alone had almost 2 million members prior to Hitler being elected to power in 1933 and by the end of that first year over 3 million, 30 times the number in the German armed forces and 4.5% of the German population.

        On that basis the march in Charlottesville would have attracted 6o million Neo-Nazis alone, without counting supporters from other groups.

        This kind of hysterical overreach just helps the Alt-Right by fulfilling every claim they make about the insane attacks launched on them by their opponents.

        Chill, guys. Trump is dangerous enough without absurd exaggeration.

        1. Is there a way to edit comments made? I seem to have slipped into exaggeration myself: 4.5% of the current US population is 14.7 million, not 60 million (and not even the Nazis could get every single Stormtrooper to any one rally) but it would still have been hard to find parking in Charlottesville!

        2. Trump apologists should think harder. It’s easy to say, “It can’t happen here.” But democracies are fragile, and complacency is hazardous. Farm jobs, manufacturing jobs and retail jobs have all but vanished from rural America, leaving a mob of angry, idle, heavily armed and often-stoned unemployed poor men itching for societal change. Metrosexuals are blind to this (they refuse to leave their “chill” bubbles).

          As Angela Merkel has said, “The rise of the Nazis was made possible because the elite of German society worked with them, but also, above all else, because most in Germany at least tolerated this rise.”

          Hitler won a third of the vote in Germany’s 1932 election; a year later, he was made chancellor. A month after that, he suspended civil liberties and cracked down on opposition parties, paving the way for the police state. The fact that Hitler was able to destroy German democracy in six months should remind anyone of the dangers of apathy.

          1. I’m not an apologist for Trump, but I am a citizen of Australia and it may be easier to be rational from this distance about the threat he poses to American democracy.

            I reckon when he is voted out in 2020 a lot of his enemies on the Left will be hoping we all forget the endless Chicken Little alarms they so relentlessly raised.

            Hitler had spent 15 years working to replace German democracy with the fascist alternative he so publicly espoused, and he came to power having built up both the means and the plan in place to do so, unlike Trump. At the height of the Great Depression he had “a mob of angry, idle . . . unemployed poor men itching for societal change” many times the size of the one you think would don Brownshirts for Trump, and they were starving. And the German system lacked the checks on executive power built into the US system.

            Most of the American elite won’t work with Trump to implement the platform on which he was democratically elected — how many will still work with him when, on your theory, he tries to overthrow American democracy and rule as a Hitler clone? When he declares his intentions to be an American Hitler will most in America at least tolerate him doing so, when most of them did not vote for him when he was running for constitutionally-limited elected office?

  2. Good piece. I agree that the lack of leadership–leadership, that is, in clearly opposing far-right extremism–greatly exacerbates the problem.

    You said, “We can continue to suppress the angry speech of white supremacists.” The speech of white supremacists was hardly suppressed. They had a permit to march. They marched. They got their message across loud and clear. They are all over the Internet, they give interviews to the media. They speak freely and forcefully enough that they provoke angry resistance wherever they go and earn the condemnation of everyone from ordinary citizens to Senators and captains of industry.

  3. If only the response was “the problem is violence AND the opinions” that would clear all of this mess up.
    I don’t think that Trump is a sympathizer to their beliefs and there is no reason he shouldn’t be calling out their morally evil ideology. There is no reason to suppress their speech either, because their ideas are monkey-brained hateful nonsense. Let them actually share their terrible, evil, backwards ideology and nobody will listen to them. Actually the best thing that could happen is for people to hear how ridiculous their true platform is – that’s why there are very few actual adherents to the core of the alt-right movement.
    The only thing that is giving these bigots a platform is the violent response by antifa. That makes anyone right-of-center feel that they should be aligned with the hate group that “at least didn’t start the violence” and that they must be aligned because they are fighting a common enemy (hence, Trump’s response).
    So no violence. They should be condemned, laughed at, and left to shrivel up in the blinding light of free speech.

  4. ” Leadership style
    …(Hw) ruled the (party) autocratically by asserting the Führerprinzip (leader principle). The principle relied on
    absolute obedience of all subordinates to their superiors; thus he viewed the government structure as a
    pyramid, with himself—the infallible leader—at the apex. …—positions were filled through appointment by
    those of higher rank, who demanded unquestioning obedience to the will of the leader. …(his) leadership
    style was to give contradictory orders to his subordinates and to place them into positions where their duties
    and responsibilities overlapped with those of others, to have “the stronger one [do] the job”. In this way, (he)
    fostered distrust, competition, and infighting among his subordinates to consolidate and maximise his own
    power. … and he discouraged his ministers from meeting independently. (he) typically did not give written
    orders; instead he communicated verbally, or had them conveyed through his close associate, (ca) He
    entrusted (ca) with his paperwork, appointments, and personal finances; (ca) used his position to control
    the flow of information and access to (him) ”

    Does the above extract sound familiar?

  5. From the photo, at least some counter-protesters were also armed with guns.
    Violence breeds violence, and after someone throws the first stone, it’s hard to sort out who threw what, when.

  6. 45 was pretty loud about 44 not calling out terrorists by name. He and the media are remiss in calling out this overt recruitment of home-grown terrorists serving the cause of violence.