A Tale of Two Heathers
in memory of Heather Heyer
In this world we do not speak of Heather’s tears.
She was not crushed on Fourth and Water
by a Challenger in burning Fields
of white crosses emboldened
by a president who cannot assess the potency of words
on a populace of persons but not a People.
We the people have no statuary.
All parks are emancipated from bad art
and all eyes are on the global snapshot:
e pluribus unum.
Fields do not drive, but grow.
In our world, Heather lives.
The “Unite the Right” rally took place on August 11 and 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists clashed with “counter-protesters” and one of the latter, Heather Heyer, was killed on the 12th when one of the former, James Fields, drove his car into them. Trump released a statement that day condemning hatred “on many sides”, not calling out white supremacists in particular. On August 13 a WH spokesperson claimed that Trump was condemning white hate groups and he in fact did so the next day. But the day after that, Tuesday August 15, he walked his comments of the previous day back, reiterating his “many sides” position, making his infamous “very fine people” statement.
Joe Biden cited those comments on the 15th of August as marking the moment he decided to run for president. In the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump, September 29, 2020, Trump responded to a question about race relations by talking about law and order, and when specifically asked to condemn white hate groups he refused to do so. Instead his, “Proud Boys stand back and stand by” comment was widely received, most significantly by the Proud Boys themselves, as a call to action, to stand by and get ready.
Days later cartoonist Scott Adams remarked that it has been debunked many times that the “very fine people” statement was a failure to condemn white supremacist hate groups, suggesting that reading the transcript reveals it unequivocally. Trump lost his vote, he claimed, because of the president’s failure in the debate to point out the lie that he had not condemned white supremacist groups. And if one goes to the full video of the press conference one can read thousands of responses that echo Adams’ claim: Trump did indeed condemn white hate groups. And you’ll find the same sentiment by conducting a simple search on Twitter, call it the “fine people hoax”. In this scenario the news media hates Trump, distorts his messages and spreads lies. Every day the left repeats the lie—‘Trump said neo-Nazis are very fine people; Biden’s campaign is based on a lie’.
According to Adams nothing would have been easier than pointing out the lie in the debate, it was “money on the table”. And Trump could easily win his vote back. All he has to do is say the magic words. Words, the right words at the right time, would seem to matter.
Any account of the events in Charlottesville on the 12th of August reveal an explosive and chaotic scene. Trump’s words, all of them, from one day to the next, did not quell that disturbance, but let it burn and arguably disturbed it further. His words did not serve to heal and unite even when—and you can read the transcripts—he specifically calls for healing and uniting. Why is it that he did indeed condemn white hate groups but that message has been completely buried? Adams and other conservatives put the blame entirely on the news media. And they might not be blameless. But you can read the transcript. More importantly you can view the video of the full press conference. Condemnation of white hate is not the overriding theme that emerges. And the image that some Trump supporters would like to promote—of a fair-minded man finding good and bad on all sides—does not stack up either. The net effect of Trump’s words is as chaotic as the events in Charlottesville on that day.
It all hinges on the phrase “fine people” and what defines a fine person to you. According to Trump—it’s also in the transcript—Robert E. Lee is an example of a fine person. Removing a monument to him is tantamount to “changing history” and where will it end. Jefferson and Washington were slave owners, will we remove all statues of them? Unite the Right demonstrators carried confederate flags, swastikas and chanted racist slogans. It was one of their number that killed Heather Heyer. And in that context Trump was quick—aggressively so—to bring the counter protesters into the same plane of blame as Unite the Right. They shouldn’t have been there. They didn’t have a permit. They were shouting, rude, aggressive. In doing so he brought Washington and Jefferson onto the same moral plane as Robert E. Lee. The message that comes through is not condemnation of white supremacy, but sympathy for support of a monument to Robert E. Lee and an aggressive, driving concern to direct blame toward the other side, those protesting a proud display of white power. The message comes through loud and clear: sympathy and support for a history of white dominance. Yes, even though the words are there: white supremacists should be condemned. Trump buried his own words. In like manner he capitulated to the outcry against white supremacy in a tweet on the 14th of August, and then buried his own statement the next day. He’s erratic but in the end clear about where his sympathies lie.
The argument that Trump is fair-minded, that he looks at blame and virtue on all sides, seeing bad and fine people everywhere—just doesn’t hold up. If his sympathies lie with white supremacists—despite tepid and equivocal condemnation—if honoring a monument to Robert E. Lee is equivalent to being attentive to historical accuracy, then “making America great again” can seem to be advocating a return to days of white dominance. Fine people on the other side of this view have reason to be concerned. At the very least, any Trump supporter who maintains that their president is not racist must admit that as long as these interpretations are so prevalent among those who have seen the unedited videos and read the transcripts, then Trump is a poor communicator, lousy at uniting the people, a terrible leader and does not deserve a vote.
I’m on the side of those fine people who, however flawed, still reach for a United States. There was room here for understanding, however polarized “right” and “left” seem to be. Missed opportunities all around. Bad moves by fine people on all sides. At another time, in another context, the statue debate has genuine merit. But we need a better president and a climate of civil discourse for that.