Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Speech A Presidential Trump Would Give

by Michael Dorf

In response to the Charlottesville violence at a white supremacist rally, President Trump condemned the "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides"--a statement that can be read to place primary responsibility on the white supremacists but that falls short of doing so expressly. Even if we acknowledge that some counter-demonstrators were responsible for some of the violence, does Trump mean to suggest that the hatred and bigotry come from many sides? Why does he not unequivocally condemn and separate himself from white supremacists?

The answer may well be political. Perhaps Trump fears alienating his alt-right base. If so, nothing I can say here will persuade him to do anything other than continue to issue ambiguous platitudes. Still, on the off-chance that Trump wishes to say something presidential, I humbly offer a speech for him to deliver. To be clear, this is not the speech that I would write for a president whose views I found closer to my own. Instead, it expresses sentiments that are appropriate to the gravity of the occasion but also consistent with the views that President Trump's least objectionable supporters attribute to him.

* * *

My fellow Americans, I want to speak to you today about the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia. At times like these, I look to the wisdom of the giants who have held the office I am now honored to hold. I would call special attention to the tombstone memorializing our third president, which, per his precise instructions, bears the following inscription:


Historians have sometimes noted the oddity that Jefferson omitted from this list his tenure as president. He did not do so because that presidency was a failure. On the contrary, by the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson placed our then-fledgling country on a path to greatness. Moreover, his very election vindicated the twin principles of government for the common people and wariness of a too-powerful central government--principles that are still relevant to this day and to which I am proud to call myself an heir.

Nonetheless, Jefferson thought his considerable accomplishments as president less notable than those listed on his tombstone. What was it about those accomplishments that overshadowed even Jefferson's considerable presidential legacy? They reflected even more basic commitments of the man.

"All men are created equal," the Declaration declared, in words that surely rang hollow to the half a million enslaved African Americans in the colonies that announced their independence in 1776. Jefferson was aware of the hypocrisy, and while that fact hardly excuses him or his fellow slaveowners from the harsh judgment of history, he knew as well the power of ideas to work themselves pure through deeds. Whatever the historical Jefferson would have thought of the Confederate cause that would eventually engulf our nation in a bloody civil war, looking back at it today, we can say that the Mississippian president of the Confederacy--whose given name was an honorific to the sage of Monticello--presided over a cause that we rightly regard as inimical to those ideals of his namesake that we seek to preserve.

I understand that some patriotic Americans oppose the removal of Confederate monuments from places of honor because they regard that removal as an attempt to erase history or to denigrate their heritage. Such views can be voiced in the democratic process, as they were in the deliberations that led to the decision in Charlottesville to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. Even after supporters of retaining the statue were outvoted by supporters of removing the statue, the former had the right to express their disapproval of that decision through peaceful means. They even had the right to express their disapproval if that disapproval was rooted in the ugly ideology of white supremacy.

The right to express ugly ideologies and false ideas finds roots in our First Amendment, which, in turn, was inspired by the 1779 Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom that Jefferson numbered among his greatest achievements. That document avows the importance of freedom of thought with respect to religion as a subset of a more general freedom of thought. It took nearly two centuries before American courts fully implemented Jefferson's insights about the importance of free speech and the dangers of orthodoxy, but those hard-won gains should not be sacrificed.

Yet to say that Americans have a right to express white supremacist or neo-Nazi viewpoints is not in any way to laud those Americans who use their freedom in so benighted a way. Justice Louis Brandeis, writing in the Whitney case ninety years ago, paid homage to Jefferson and the other founders of our nation:
Those who won our independence were not cowards. [T]hey knew that . . . it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.
The First Amendment that recognizes the same basic principle as Jefferson's Religious Freedom Statute rests on the premise that government ought not to forbid people from stating evil opinions. It does not assume that there are no evil opinions. As Brandeis makes clear, there are. What the First Amendment says, what Jefferson says, what the spirit of liberal democracy says, is that when people use their freedom to express evil, the rest of us should not stifle their views but instead use our freedom to denounce those views.

And so today, lest there be any doubt occasioned by my past words and deeds, I unequivocally denounce white supremacism, neo-Nazism, racism, antisemitism, and other forms of hate. These ideas have long festered on the margins of American life. They have lately come into the open. Worse, some people who profess these hateful views claim to speak for me and others of my supporters who find such extremism intolerable. Such views are themselves reprehensible. Violence committed in the name of such hatred is doubly reprehensible.

I note with sadness the fact that the hate-fueled unrest of the last two days took place in Charlottesville, on and near the campus that Jefferson established and loved. Our great universities are appropriately sites in which scholars and students seek to reconcile two founding principles of the American republic: liberty and equality. I have frequently denounced "political correctness," which I continue to believe is antithetical to the free inquiry necessary for self government. Our colleges and universities should be leaders in liberty, not bastions of orthodoxy.

Yet it is no stifling orthodoxy to say that no one should be condemned for the color of his or her skin, the religion he or she professes, or anything other than the content of their character. Those who choose to hate may be exercising their rights, but they do no honor to the honorable parts of Jefferson's legacy.

I have spoken at some length about the views of Jefferson. I shall conclude with the wisdom of another great American--one who nearly lost his life three times while fighting against the Confederacy in order to preserve the Union. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once wrote that a man "may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman." The cases regarding the constitutional rights of government employees no longer fully embrace that view, but surely there are domains in which it holds.

One such domain is the White House. People have a right to express white supremacist views, but not on my behalf. Thus, as a token of my good faith, I am today dismissing from my administration those advisers whose own acts and deeds may have given the peddlers of hate the false impression that I am at one with their cause: Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller. I hope that their future endeavors will show that they were never allied with the hateful ideology that has been on display in Charlottesville, but the stakes are now too high for me to send mixed signals by keeping them on in my administration.

Meanwhile, I have informed the Governor of Virginia that the full resources of the federal government are at his disposal should they be needed to keep the peace. In addition, the Department of Justice will bring to bear its resources to protect the civil rights of everyone.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless America.


Shag from Brookline said...

eMike, I've mad the rounds this morning on Charlottesville. I recommend Mr. Dyson's essay in the NYTimes. Elsewhere on the legal blogosphere, there is a discussion of whether America is a nation under the Constitution. I'm of view that it is. But America may be in need of a "Declaration of Interdependence" to confirm this.

Now for the Sunday political shows to vent my spleen. I appreciate your post.

Shag from Brookline said...

If President Trump were to make such a speech, he would do so with his fingers crossed. Check out David Letterman's "apology" for calling Trump a racist in 2012:

Joe said...

Moving past the special nature of the election itself & obtaining Louisiana, many do think Jefferson's actual presidency left something to be desired. I'm unsure how fair this is, but it a common enough sentiment. As matter of things to remember him by, it would be sensible to list the three things cited.

Like their idealized ancestors, apparently some were not satisfied with democratic opposition at the polls or public debate in general, and supported violence to protect the "lost cause." Meanwhile, the title of the piece highlights my distaste of giving Trump the title at all. He did not do enough in my mind to earn it.

Shag from Brookline said...

Further on the subject of Jefferson and speech, check out "Founding fathers' dirty campaign:

as Adams and Jefferson went toe to toe during the 1800 campaign. It has been said that this campaign led to the emphasis of political parties despite criticism of political parties noted in the Federalist Papers. Compare the Trump campaign tactics on political speech with those of both Jefferson and Adams in 1800. Jefferson abided his principles regarding speech in the VA statute, using surrogates to publish them under other authorship. Query: When he gave instructions for his gravestone, did he remember his 1800 campaign?

David Ricardo said...

At some point in the far distant future this nation will finally reject Jefferson the man. We have ascribed to Jefferson the man the words and thoughts of Jefferson the author and of Jefferson the philosopher. That is a Jefferson who did not exist.

As a native Virginian who grew up near Charlottesville I have visited Monticello many times and Jefferson’s grave many times. I never cease to wonder how to explain Jefferson but ultimately the conclusion is this. America has misinterpreted Jefferson. When he wrote of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness he means for it to be for Caucasian males. When he spoke of equality he spoke of equality between Caucasian males. For Jefferson women were second class, they were non-citizens and African Americans were not even people. That he was a man of his times is just an apologetic excuse because we want to believe that the individual who wrote so eloquently about freedom was a person who actually lived and believed those words. He was not and did not.

The University that Jefferson so proudly founded had to be forced to admit African Americans. Ever hear of Mary Washington College? It was where women had matriculate because they were not allowed to attend the University of Virginia. Does anyone believe that his relationship with Sally Hemmings was a consensual one on her part? The beautiful and majestic house that Jefferson designed was built by slave labor. Upon his death Jefferson freed only a few slaves. Even after his death he left men and women and children enslaved when he could have saved them.

When you read the noble writings of Jefferson, think also about the following:

"I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm," Jefferson remarked in 1820. "What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption." (source:

Yes you are reading that correctly. Jefferson thought of African American children as ‘capital’. And finally let me thank men like Jefferson whose work allows me to make the following statement even though many will find it offensive.

In the demonstrations and counter demonstrations in Charlottesville that just took place, it is reasonable to ask just which side Jefferson would have been on.

Please keep your comments civil; I have.

Joe said...

The criticism of Jefferson, I'll say this civilly, is overcorrection.

He set forth a rule of natural law and spoke repeatedly how he believed slavery violated it. Positive and natural law aren't the same thing & he wasn't of the slavery as positive good school.

He was a product of his times, place and prejudices. He also didn't think there was any realistic way to end slavery and keep blacks around that would retain the peace. But, he did not think free blacks -- a sizable number -- had no rights. They were "people." Even slaves were "people." They knew right and wrong. etc. His racism is well know, but his Notes of Virginia etc. still recognized blacks as people.

Women to him were different from men, which was the average opinion of the age, inferior in various ways. There was nothing really special about him in this regard and if you want to reject him, reject the average male of the times. I find that a misguided approach of dealing with the past but be consistent.

Women was not "non-citizens" to him. Citizens had certain basic rights. He didn't think women lacked them. Yes, like the average person, he didn't think women should vote etc. But, show me where he said they couldn't contract at all (even if not married), testify in court, speak out on public matters & other acts of citizens.

Integration of schools was the common rule long after Jefferson died. The opposition wasn't unique to him. Segregation was even allowed in Boston there. Why single out him? His relations with his sister in-law is well known. But, his acceptance of slavery wasn't unique. Washington had slaves too. Reject him as a man too.

Jefferson died in 1826. Conservatives today reject the demonstration. A modern day Jefferson would likely be with McCain, Cruz, McConnell et. al. against.

Joe said...

The problems out there are too important for this overkill, but we are fighting old battles there, I know.

Shag from Brookline said...

Growing up in the Boston are in the 1930s and '40s, I became aware of political parties early on, as my immigrant parents were FDR fans and Democrats and Boston was strongly Democratic. There was the Thomas Jefferson club at the corner of Dudley and Dearborn Sts. in the Roxbury District of Boston where we then lived. I learned of the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner and its boosting of Democrats. I also remember the Republican party then being know as the party of Lincoln who had freed the slaves. Over my lifetime many myths have been exposed. Parties changed as politics changed. Myths are still being unravelled. Were these myths what made America great? What we learn in our youthful innocence is at times difficult to undo when exposed to the truth. Perhaps America isn't ready for a reconciliation as yet as evidenced by events at Charlottesville. But we can start. We could start with Obama's tweets of a Mandela quote in response to Charlottesville. America has made progress over the years, two steps forward, one step back. The greatness of America has come with progress. We can't go back to the good old days that were not really good for so many. We learn from the past; we can't live in the past. We can be grateful to the founders for giving future generations something to build on in the quest for a "more perfect Union." In doing so, we have to recognize their faults. And we have to recognize the faults of our current leaders.

cheyanne said...

Thank you for the speech that Trump would give. Here is a view of what he will do.

Since his candidacy Trump has been creating and empowering white nationalists with dog whistles and refusals to condemn. The right-wing media has been increasingly calling Trump an embattled president threatened by the deep state conspiracy to remove him from office. They have both advocated violence.

Nothing new: racism, violence, setting up "enemies" to maintain power

What's new is he is finally putting to use these parts of his administration.

Charlottesville and NK events were planned and executed as Trump is facing the biggest threat to his administration, his family and his political life: the investigations he has been unable to stop.

Other dictators have faced the same problem of internal opposition and solved it the same way as Trump is trying to. They have organized armed bands to attack "enemies" of the state/regime then used the "violence" to revoke civil rights.

In 8 months Trump has created a DoJ that is willing accomplice in the destruction of a democratic state, a Republican party that is acting as a "one-party" state, and . . .a media that has completely missed the true goal of Trump's administration. He is not here to govern; he is here to destroy democracy. And he is using "legitimate" means.

By the way, for those who think that Trump is too "stupid" to organize a coup, dictators need no handbook or classes in Dictatorship 101. Lust for power is innate in their personalities.