In the aftermath of Charlottesville

I was born and raised under a fascist dictatorship: Salazar’s colonial Portugal. As a child and young adult, I witnessed intolerance expressed along social, economic, political, racial and tribal divides. None of that makes the Charlottesville events—and what has happened since—easier to understand or deal with. It just makes them more personal.

With most of the nation, I mourn the dead and wish for the recovery of the injured. It is tragic that Heather Heyer was killed and many were injured for choosing to demonstrate against bigotry. It is also tragic that two policemen died in an on-duty accident while protecting society from itself.

To most of us, this is unambiguous: There is no place in America for hatred, racism and intolerance, as embodied in white supremacy and neo-Nazi ideologies. The Civil War and World War II were fought and won, at a dreadful cost in human lives, to curtail the ills of these abhorrent views of society. Attempts at comeback, as in Charlottesville, are misguided and dangerous, and must be stopped.

Clearly, it does matter how these attempts are stopped. Use of violence and unruly destruction of statues are not the solution. Insults and shaming campaigns via social media are counterproductive. In all these cases, the moral ground is diminished, the risk of harming innocents is high—and bigotry might emerge empowered.

Much better tools exist and are being extensively used. Peaceful demonstrations are powerful. Even more powerful are education initiatives and role models at home, in school, through media and social media, and at places of work, recreation and worship. As Mandela eloquently said, and Obama appropriately quoted, if hatred must be taught, love too can be taught. Understanding the legitimacy, meaning and power of diversity decisively undermines the foundation of racist and supremacist ideologies.

Importantly, there is also an essential role for the government: Through executive, legislative and judicial actions that preserve constitutional rights, promote diversity and social justice, and enable economic security for all Americans. Through community engagement and public safety actions. And (first and foremost?) through principled and calming leadership.

That is why no one, regardless of party affiliation, should be satisfied with the President’s response to the Charlottesville events. And, in a rare suggestion of bipartisanship, few are. Mr. Trump was late in addressing a nation shocked by a horrific display of bigotry and grieving from an act of apparent domestic terrorism. He was non-specific in his condemnation of white supremacism and neo-Nazism. He eventually was pressured into being more specific, only to quickly reverse himself and attempt to dilute blame.

By being ambiguous and taking the condemnation focus away from deep-rooted bigotry and domestic terrorism, Mr. Trump showed lack of moral clarity and of alignment with core American values. In fact, in what he said and when and how he said it, Mr. Trump arguably came across (not for the first time) as unfit to be President.

Presidents have been called unfit before—most often rhetorically, for partisan reasons, and without real consequences. Yet, if the Vice President and the majority of the cabinet were to formally state that the President is unfit (unable) to govern, and if two thirds of both chambers of Congress were to agree, the President would be removed from power (US Constitution, Amendment 25, Section 4) until such time as he regains fitness.

Invoking the 25th amendment at this time is politically unlikely, and would require a broad and unprecedented interpretation of inability to govern. But should it nevertheless be considered, as suggested by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA)? If so, on what moral and legal basis? And what would it mean for our society and democracy? Answering these questions requires careful and objective thought—and would give a measure of our country in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

— Antonio Baptista

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