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Few Arkansas Republicans are willing to call out Trump for coddling white supremacy 

The politics of hate.

click to enlarge WHITE SUPREMACY 'MUST BE REJECTED AT EVERY TURN': Said Governor Hutchinson, but he failed to criticize Trump.
  • WHITE SUPREMACY 'MUST BE REJECTED AT EVERY TURN': Said Governor Hutchinson, but he failed to criticize Trump.

On the night of Aug. 11, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists paraded across the lawn of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, chanting "blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us." The next morning, alongside militia members carrying automatic weapons, the group marched to Charlottesville's Emancipation Park as part of a planned "Unite the Right" rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, for whom the park had been named until February, when the city council voted to rename it and sell the statue. Nazi and Confederate flags were prominent, as were former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, white nationalist Richard Spencer and members of the neo-Confederate hate group the League of the South. At this gathering, one of the largest white supremacist events in U.S. modern history, no one was wearing hoods or bandanas. Fascists gave the Nazi salute for cameras. Marchers proudly talked about the superiority of the white race to journalists.

They were, predictably, met by counter-protesters. Violence erupted and the police dispersed the crowds. In the early afternoon, a Dodge Challenger with an Ohio license plate barreled through a crowd of counter-protesters gathered on a downtown street, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring at least 19 others. The man charged for the crime, James Alex Fields Jr., has been connected with the neo-Nazi movement.

Even before Heyer was killed, Governor Hutchinson strongly condemned the racist rally, writing on Twitter, "White supremacy has no place in America. When it turned violent in the [1980s], I prosecuted them as U.S. Attorney," referring to his prosecution of the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, a white supremacist militia based in Marion County in the late 1970s and early '80s. President Trump, however, drew a moral equivalency to the white supremacists and the counter-protesters in a statement on Aug. 12. "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides," he said. On Aug. 14, the president, reading a prepared statement, condemned the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups by name. But on Aug. 15, Trump again blamed "both sides," laying partial blame on a group he called the "alt-left."

"You had a group on one side and group on the other and they came at each other with clubs — there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group," he said. "You had people that were very fine people on both sides.

"Not all those people were neo-Nazis, not all those people were white supremacists. Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it is Robert E Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

Even for someone who has never distinguished himself for his moral leadership, the president's refusal to condemn avowed racists — Nazis! — seemed to suggest a political sin from which even Donald "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters" Trump might not recover. The denunciations, across both parties, came quickly from the likes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio and even Trump's own U.S. Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Robert B. Neller.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas called for the removal of all Confederate monuments on public grounds, and the Republican Party said there was no place in the Party "for people who promote and condone racial hatred." But the Arkansas Times wondered how Trump's moral failure resonated with individual Arkansas Republicans. So last week we surveyed every GOP legislator, constitutional officer and member of the congressional delegation on how they felt about Charlottesville, President Trump's response and Confederate monuments. That number included two U.S. senators, four U.S. representatives, six constitutional officers, 26 state senators and 76 state representatives. Of that 114, 53 either responded to our questions or made statements online or to other media that we included. See those responses here, and help us gather answers from your representatives if they didn't respond; send their answers to lindseymillar@arktimes.com with the subject head “GOP survey.”

click to enlarge ON THE STATE CAPITOL GROUNDS: One of two Confederate monuments.
  • ON THE STATE CAPITOL GROUNDS: One of two Confederate monuments.

Few Republicans were willing to condemn Trump for drawing a moral equivalency between white supremacists and counter-protesters. At least 10 Republican legislators embraced Trump’s notion that “both sides” were to blame for the violence. Support for Confederate monuments was nearly universal among those surveyed, with Republicans often citing the monuments as historical reminders of a dark time, even though most of Arkansas’s monuments were erected long after the Civil War and were clearly meant to celebrate the Lost Cause. The plaque on a prominent Confederate soldiers monument on the grounds of the state Capitol reads, “ARKANSAS REMEMBERS THE FAITHFULNESS OF HER SONS AND COMMENDS THEIR EXAMPLE TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.” 
Even many Republicans who forcefully denounced white supremacists often engaged in rhetorical gymnastics to avoid calling out Trump for coddling racists. Governor Hutchinson told the Times, “Every generation must affirm and live American values anew. Equal opportunity and respect for all races is fundamental to what is great about our country. The whole concept of white supremacy or neo-Nazi dogma must be rejected at every turn.” But when asked whether the response from Trump, who decidedly did not reject white supremacy, was appropriate, Hutchinson said, in part, “I am grateful that he clearly denounced white supremacy in very clear terms.”

Angie Maxwell, director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society and Diane D. Blair associate professor of Southern Studies at the University of Arkansas, said some of the reticence to condemn Trump likely stemmed from the relatively rare historical moment in which Republicans find themselves.

“[Since the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928], there have only been six years prior to Trump’s administration when the Republicans controlled the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the presidency. So it’s a big moment for Republicans, and I’m sure it’s very frustrating to some to see it go down this path. I think it’s very hard in that moment to then criticize your party because the Republican Party has been waiting for a very long time to have that kind of control. But it would make their party stronger in my opinion.”

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who along with Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs) has proposed a legislative subcommittee to study race relations, said she was disheartened by her Republican colleagues’ embrace of Trump’s rhetoric and refusal to call out the president in clear terms.
“We are so reticent to face hard issues head on. We will talk about it in generic terms. But it’s kind of like if I go to the doctor for a diagnosis and the doctor figures out what’s really ailing me, I don’t want the doctor to come out and say, ‘It’s a serious issue, you do have some problems, and I hope we can deal with your health issue, and we’ll all pull together.” If I don’t know what the actual issue is, I’m not going to deal with it. That’s what I feel like we are doing now.”

Maxwell said she understood the difficulty electors — and elected officials — have in turning on a candidate they supported.

“If you were optimistic about Trump or believed a lot of the criticism was unjustified or fake news, it’s hard to say, ‘I’m super-disappointed in my candidate.’ But we have to constantly re-evaluate our public officials and see if they’re holding true to the things that we believe in and support. It’s not a universal loyalty vote. They work for you. Questioning them and calling them out on things you don’t like is our job as citizens.”
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