Leadership on the Right is a column by OUTSET’s Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Perkins, in which he identifies and provides analysis for leadership challenges within the conservative movement.
In the wake of the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, in which white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters, a heartbroken nation looked towards a President who has a long history of making expeditious statements. What they hoped to see was a forceful repudiation of the hate groups. Instead, they witnessed a deafening silence, followed by a few excuses.
Despite an ambiguous tweet about national unity on Saturday and brief comments condemning the hate “on many sides” later that night, it would take Trump two days to condemn the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and White Supremacists by name. And even when he did that, his remarks were full of exceptions and whataboutisms, saying that there were “fine people on both sides,” and asking “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?”
The President’s defense for not calling out these groups by name earlier was that he wanted to know more of the facts before making a political statement. The challenge with such an excuse, of course, is that Trump had not possessed such a desire up to this point despite several instances of terrorism abroad, which he immediately blamed on radical Islamic terrorists. Even if Trump had suddenly changed his preference for acquiring more information before making a statement, it was public knowledge by Saturday afternoon that the violence had been instigated and advanced by the white supremacist groups. His defense, therefore, could not be taken seriously.
A point of pride among President Trump and many of his supporters is that he is challenging the status quo. He’s not a typical politician, they say, and he, therefore, doesn’t behave in a way that presidents traditionally have conducted themselves. At what point, however, does this experimental performance become the problem that cripples his presidency?
There has been an ongoing debate about whether or not Trump is doomed to be a lame-duck president who, at best, gets nothing done. Assessing where we are today, far past the first one-hundred days with no major legislation to show for it, such an argument appears to be true. Looking beyond legislative achievements, the question of Trump’s leadership on a big-picture level comes into play. Specifically, does he have an ability to provide moral leadership when the nation needs it most? According to those within his own party, he cannot.
“What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said in a recent interview with Vice News. “And that moral authority is compromised when Tuesday happened.”
This is a problem because, as David French wrote for National Review, presidents affect culture.
“When the leader of the free world inflicts cultural damage this severe, he’s doing far more harm than a few judicial appointments can remedy,” French writes. “Conservatives used to understand this reality.”
The United States has the power to affect global events, especially in places where human dignity is under attack. If we don’t have a president who can rebuke atrocities domestically, our influence in the international community diminishes.
Following his election, many hoped that Trump would become more presidential and, in turn, more understanding of the weight his new title carried. Some were even encouraged, perhaps, when he said in his inaugural address, “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.” However, Trump’s behavior thus far, and especially this past week, demonstrate that he is not interested in being a president for all Americans. By downplaying the role of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, he was sending a dog whistle to those white nationalists in the alt-right who believe he is their president.
America needs a president who can provide moral leadership in times of pain. Moral leadership requires a trace of moral authority, of which Trump has none. He is indeed changing the status of the presidency, but it is a change that history will not view fondly.