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August 22, 2017 8:50 pm

Alan Dershowitz: The President Has a Special Obligation to Condemn the Racist Right

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US President Donald Trump. Photo: Screenshot.

All decent Americans have an obligation to condemn the violent bigotry of the Nazi and KKK demonstrators in Charlottesville or wherever else they spew their poisonous and threatening rhetoric. But President Donald Trump has a special obligation to single out for condemnation, and distance himself from, individuals and groups that claim – even if falsely – to speak in his name, as the racist provocateurs in Charlottesville did.

David Duke, the notorious bigot, told reporters that white nationalists were working to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” Richard Spencer, the founder of the Daily Stormer (a not so coded homage to the Nazi publication Der Sturmer,) attributed the growth of the ultra-nationalist alt-right to the Trump Presidency: “Obviously the alt-right has come very far in the past two years in terms of public exposure…is Donald Trump one of the major causes of that? Of course.”

Trump initially responded as follows: “We must ALL be united and condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America.” But then, following the car ramming that killed a peaceful protester, President Trump made the following statement: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides.”

President Trump’s inclusion of the words “violence on many sides” – which seemed improvised – suggested to some a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the KKK, on the one hand, and those protesting and resisting them, on the other hand. Trump denied that he was suggesting any such equivalence and subsequently made the following statement: “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and other hate groups, are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”

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But then a day later he seemed to double down on his attempt to be even handed in his comments about the “many sides” of this conflict. He pointed to “very fine people on both sides,” implying that Nazis and Klansmen could be “fine,” because their protests were “very legal.” Then he denounced “alt-left” groups that were “very, very violent.” Once again he blamed “both sides,” and asked rhetorically, “what about the ‘alt-left,’ that as you say, came charging at the alt-right? Don’t they have any semblance of guilt?”

David Duke immediately praised President Trump’s condemnation of the “alt- left,” thanking him “for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”

Finally (though nothing this President ever tweets is final,) President Trump praised the anti-racist “protestors in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate.”

It is against this background that the President’s back and forth statements must be evaluated.

Even if it were true – and the evidence is to the contrary – that Black Lives Matter and Antifa were as blameworthy for Charlottesville as the Nazis and KKK, it would still be incumbent on President Trump to focus his condemnation especially on the violent racist right that claims to speak on his behalf. The hard left – which does, in part, include some violent and bigoted elements – does not purport to speak on the President’s behalf and does not claim to be trying to “fulfil the promises of Donald Trump.” To the contrary, they oppose everything he stands for.

This situation poses a delicate dilemma for President Trump. He has denounced the ideology of the violent racists on the alt-right who claim to be acting in his name –not quickly or forcefully enough. And he has declared his opposition to “racism” and specifically to “those who cause violence in its name,” who he has called “criminals” and “thugs.” He specifically included within these categories the “KKK, Neo-Nazis [and] White Supremacists,” the very groups that purport to speak in his name.

Why is that not enough? Why should he not at the same time condemn the alt-left for its violence? These are reasonable questions that require nuanced answers. Let me try to provide some.

I have long believed that it is the special responsibility of decent conservatives to expose, condemn and marginalize hard right extremists and bigots. William Buckley showed the way when he refused to defend Patrick Buchanan against charges that what he had said amounted to anti-Semitism. Other decent conservatives followed Buckley’s lead, and marginalized anti-Semites and racists who expressed bigotry in the false name of conservatism.

I also believe that it is the special responsibility of decent liberals to do the same with regard to hard left bigoted extremists. I must acknowledge, as a liberal, that we have not done as good a job as decent conservatives have done. Perhaps this is because hard left extremists often march under banners of benevolence, whereas, hard rights extremists tend not to hide their malevolence.

Consider, for example, Antifa, the radical hard left group, some of whose members violently confronted the Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville. As reported by the New York Times, the organization is comprised of a “diverse collection of anarchists, communists and socialists” with its “antecedents in Germany and Italy.” According to the Times, “Its adherents express disdain for mainstream liberal politics” and support “direct action” by which they mean “using force and violence,” rather than free speech and civil disobedience. Their leaders claim that violence is necessary because “it’s full on war.”

Nor is this merely rhetoric. On university campuses, particularly at Berkeley, “black-clad protestors, some of whom identified themselves as Antifa, smashed windows, threw gasoline bombs and broke into campus buildings, causing $100,000 in damage.” They model themselves on the “Weathermen” of the 1970s, who were responsible for numerous acts of violence.

They claim to be using counter-violence in defense against the violence of Neo-Nazi and Klansmen, but that is not true. They also use violence to shut down speakers with whose worldviews they disagree: they include not only right wing extremists, but also mainstream conservatives, moderate Zionists and even some liberals. They reject dialogue in favor of intimidation, and force.

As a liberal, I will not give these hard-left violent bigots a pass. It is true that the Nazis and KKK are currently more dangerous in terms of physical violence than hard left groups. (It is also true that the most violent groups by far are radical Islamic terrorists, who are not the targets of Antifa protests.) But the violence of the racist right (and radical jihadists) must not lead us to ignore the reality that Antifa and its radical allies pose real danger to the future of our nation, because of their increasing influence on university campuses where our future leaders are being educated. The recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere have made them heroes among some mainstream liberals, who are willing to excuse their anti-liberal bigotry because they are on the barricades against fascism.

It’s far too easy to self-righteously condemn your political enemies when they step (or leap) over the line to bigotry and violence. It’s far more difficult to condemn those who share your wing, whether left or right, but who go too far. But that is what morality and decency require, as Buckley taught us.

So President Trump must stop being even handed in his condemnations. He should focus his condemnation on extreme right wing bigots who speak and act in his name, and leave it to those of us on the left to focus our condemnation on left wing extremists and bigots.

Alan M. Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School and author of Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law. His new book, Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy, is now available.

Follow Alan Dershowitz on: Twitter: @AlanDersh – Facebook: @AlanMDershowitz


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  • MMLopez

    No, he’s saying Trump shouldn’t condemn the alt-left because the liberal left itself should be doing it, but Trump wouldn’t need to condemn them if their own intellectuals did it.

  • Lawrencewa

    Terrible analogy, Bernard!

  • Lawrencewa

    Beth–I have to disagree with your points. What you say is incorrect. The Antifa are a LARGE group of anarchist goons compensated by the socialist psycho George Soros. They employ violent tactics in an attempt to create chaos and destroy our country. They are anti-Semitic, anti- Israel and pro-BDS. They have no tolerance for anyone who does not agree with their philosophy. They show up at many colleges to prevent anyone who is conservative or pro-Israel from speaking. It has happened on numerous occasions. Basically, they are left wing fascists.

    Trump’s sons are involved with Jewish women. Both of his daughters are involved with Jewish men. One of his daughters is an Orthodox Jew. His grandchildren are Orthodox Jews. He has a number of Jews in his cabinet. He is strongly pro-Israel. He has NEVER denied the Holocaust and he has attended Holocaust remembrance ceremonies. With these facts in hand, there is no possible way he could be anti-Semitic!

    By the way, I am not anti-Beth. After all, some of my best friends are named Beth!

  • LBIL

    It would be great if both sides kept the extremists in check and tried to be moderate and pragmatic. The problem I see is that the violence and threats is getting results for the anarchists and communists. Politicians, media figures, and celebrities are often giving them a pass or flat out endorsing the violence. There is this hyper-vigilance across various elements of the establishment towards anyone who would like to go back to a society more equivalent to something out of the 80s or 90s. The Democratic base has a very militant radicalized side to it. I’m not sure Antifa or far-left racial nationalists represent the average voter or even vote themselves, but, many public figures among the Democratic party and its base seem to think they are a core voting constituency and respond as if they are taking orders from these people.

    Hillary and Obama lended encouragement to violent radicals in the aftermath of events like the Dallas cop killings. There was no pressure on them to condemn any far-left group. So, Trump has to speak out against these violent groups. The mix of people on both sides had some diversity to it, it wasn’t like every person there was conspiring. There were regular, non-extreme people on either side of the issue at the rally. Not everyone was Hitler reincarnate or a murderous communist.

    The violence currently seems to come exclusively from the left. When is the last time groups of people in KKK or Richard Spencer outfits came to a Bernie rally or to some Revcom event and beat people while causing massive property damage? Perhaps people on the right would save their violence for a time when they have people in elected office. Or maybe they’d just separate themselves from the rest of society in the middle of nowhere. No one should really trust what they say because we won’t know their intent until they are able to act on it. But I doubt the people of this country are going to vote in a bunch of nazis and let America become the 4th Reich. Either way, I find it hard to relate to a racial supremacist or militant communist mindset.

  • Paul

    I USUALLY agree with all Mr. Dershowitz says. I think that this time he has got it a bit wrong.
    I think it is the Presidents job to call out ALL groups who act against the welfare and values of the country.
    ALL violent and extreme groups should be condemned, especially if they believe they are acting correctly, no matter WHICH flag they fly. And that IS the duty of the President.
    It is ridiculous to suggest that the President should NOT condemn the damaging Alt-left (and leave it to the left to condemn them) because there is also an Alt right. The Alt-left is dangerous too, even if there were no Neo-Nazis. He SHOULD condemn them both – not because the association is personally damaging to him politically but as the representative of the welfare of the entire nation.
    As a completely seperate issue – he should ALSO distance himself personally and politically from ANY dissident group who falsely claim to be representing him, from considerations of integrity, leadership and also political wisdom. He should state that his Jewish daughter and grandchildren DESTROY the idea he is a Neo-Nazi.

  • TheRealNormanRogers

    “So President Trump must stop being even handed in his condemnations. He should focus his condemnation on extreme right wing bigots who speak and act in his name, and leave it to those of us on the left to focus our condemnation on left wing extremists and bigots.”

    Oh please, Alan. Leave it to you lefties to criticize lefty goons? You really think there is something wrong with DJT condemning violence “on all sides”??? You didn’t see the fascist blackshirts with clubs flailing away at anyone in reach?

    OBTW, if you’d really like to understand what really happened in Charlottesvill, watch this video:

    It shows Alex Fields’ scar, slowed (or stopped) by the mass of people in the street, hit in the left rear with a baseball bat wielded by a lefty fascist thug, then accelerating through the crowd before it rammed into the second car which then rammed into the van which hit and killed a woman.

    Seems to me a good defense lawyer ought to be able to convincingly demonstrate that Fields was trying to get away from the lefty fascist mob and was startled and frightened when his car was struck by the baseball bat wielding thug. Fields inadvertently hit the gas and the aftermath was not his fault.

  • robert Davis

    Trump is right to condemn ALL nazis those from the left and those from the rightwing. In fact leftwing nazis are worse than the former bcs they are in greater numbers and closer to hitler’s genocide.

  • Thought is Free

    Trump is absolutely correct – there is serious violence, intimidation and bullying on both sides, Alt-Left and Alt-right. Sadly, the left and their media useful idiots simply refuse to acknowledge this, and so enable further violence. Yes, an Alt-Right thug committed murder in Charlottesville and must be dealt with accordingly, but this does not negate Trump’s position. I believe it is the duty of everyone to condemn the extremism on both sides.

  • Trump is President of ALL Americans. Therefore it is his job to call out radicals from any side of the isle.
    Imagine if Hiliary had been elected, she would not have called out violence from the left wing antifa group, and only sought to associated the KKK (a group founded by democrats) with republicans.

    That is the problem, as much as the left should call out the radicals which are harbored among them, they will not do so.

    On the other hand, the Republicans do openly condemn and repudiate any association with the kkk, yet that fact is ignored.

  • Joseph Feld

    Alan Dershowitz is one of the few people I almost always agree with. I look forward to reading his opinions.