Rather than receding into the past, Charlottesville threatens to become a permanent symbol of President Trump’s supposed racism. The president has made several unsuccessful attempts to blunt the racism charge by his political opponents and the mostly anti-Trump media. To succeed, he needs to communicate more effectively in order to reach persuadable citizens who are neither part of his base nor soldiers in “the Resistance.”
Alternately, in recent weeks, Trump has battled with the media and delivered solemn speeches saying all the right things. Trading off-the-cuff barbs with the media in press conferences and savaging reporters in mass rallies hasn’t improved the narrative. Long since, potentially persuadable citizens have been turned off by the Trump-media battles. On the other hand, Trump’s solemn speeches are simply inauthentic and have convinced virtually no one.
Charlottesville intertwines difficult issues of racism, violence and Civil War monuments. The president needs to do three things: first, untangle and dismantle opposing arguments rather than only restating his own, second, concede indefensible elements of otherwise strong arguments, and, third, offer a transcendent and inspiring call for unity and reconciliation.
President Trump has been attacked for treating “both sides” equally. Sides of what? Are his accusers referring to his position on racism, or on violence or on Civil War monuments. Racism is a belief, violence is behavior, and the same individual may take different sides depending upon which monument is under discussion.
At his controversial press conference on the Tuesday following the Charlottesville events, one reporter asked whether the President was placing the two “sides” “on the same moral plane,” and another “Do you think what you call the alt-Left is the same as neo-Nazis.”
Manifestly, these reporters were conflating the separate issues of racist belief and violent behavior. Trump has condemned one side for its odious beliefs but, rightly, both sides for violence.
The president should call out his political opponents and the biased media, explaining how they have conflated these separate issues and challenging their narratives.
Trump should confront the media: “Do you excuse violence on the ‘good’ side? Were Antifa thugs in Charlottesville entitled to come charging with clubs in their hands? What about ‘Hundreds of masked, black-clad (Antifa) anarchists who overwhelmed a peaceful California protest and assaulted at least five perceived political enemies’ just this past weekend, as reported by the Associated Press?”
The monument wars offer an ideal opportunity to employ tactical concessions designed to advance strategic goals. Rather than always doubling down when challenged, Trump should concede indefensible ground when appropriate. That’s what successful battlefield generals do.
Concessions can serve as firebreaks against raging wildfires. Trump raised the monuments issue with a warning about potential runaway excesses: “So, this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Conceding that some statues should come down might break the anti-monuments fever. After the War, Confederate generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and George Gordon founded and led the Ku Klux Klan. Their statues should never have been erected in the first place.
Finally, President Trump must find a way to rise above the fray in transcendent presidential fashion. He might call upon Americans to remember the behavior of Union and Confederate soldiers after the war. They held reunions together. Invoking this history might serve to inspire present-day Americans to reconcile and unite.
While defiantly counterpunching with the Resistance and the mostly anti-Trump media will secure his base, that base is not large enough to carry the day. The president needs to persuade open-minded Americans in the middle, on Charlottesville if it’s not too late and on other important issues going forward. To reach them, the President needs to adopt a more versatile and sophisticated communications strategy.
As appeared in Investor’s Business Daily on Aug. 30, 2017.
Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.