‘Indistinct Notes’: Trump Flubs on Moral Leadership
The media are aghast over President Trump’s words “defending the Charlottesville rally” in yesterday’s press conference. CNN’s Anderson Cooper spoke for many when he said Trump had “gone off the rails,” revealing “so clearly who and what he really is,” and ripping open “wounds that have barely begun to heal.”
Just what did Trump reveal, and what did he rip open? It isn’t nearly that clear. There are two ways to read what he was saying — which is a huge problem in itself.
The Negative Read
The media read him as saying the alt-right and the KKK include “many fine people,” that white nationalists are not to blame for the Charlottesville violence. Ergo, in short, Donald Trump is just fine with violent racism.
Now, it’s unlikely on the face of it that any contemporary leader could think any of those things. A reasonable approach would be to look for what he was really saying instead. The media have no interest in looking at it that reasonably, though, for at least two reasons.
First, they hate Donald Trump. They’re watching for ways to cast him in a negative light, and he certainly handed them one this time.
Second, for many of America’s elite, it’s all but impossible for an oppressed minority to be at fault for anything. It actually is impossible for minorities to be extremist. Thus they know, without even needing to look into what really happened there, that there could only be one violent extremist group represented in Charlottesville.
The Positive Read
Which is nonsense, of course. Majority-population groups can do wrong, and so can minority-member groups. Extremism can arise almost anywhere. I think that’s really what Trump was trying to say. White nationalists are certainly deserving of condemnation; he has been very clear on that. They bear major blame for what went wrong in Charlottesville. But others ended up contributing to it as well.
Trump also tried to say that not everyone who wanted Robert E. Lee’s statue to remain standing was horrible at heart. A person could have motives for it other than violence or racism: He or she could still be a “fine person.” Such a bland endorsement should seem unremarkable: It’s hardly unusual to say call someone a “fine person” even if he or she is wrong in some way.
Moreover, the move to tear down Lee’s statue could progress even as far as removing Jefferson or Washington from public eye, for they were slave owners, too.
Obviously that’s a best-case interpretation, but it fits Trump’s statements at least as well as the negative read the media put on it. So there are two ways he could be interpreted, one very negative, the other more reasonable-looking. Now, which one represents “who and what he really is”? It’s hard to say, and even harder to find agreement. Your answer will depend on your politics.
‘Indistinct Notes’ in Moral Leadership
Unfortunately, however, there’s another question whose answer is not so debatable. Our country is deeply divided, and the rift is a moral one. On the best-case scenario, Trump was trying to make something like a moral statement: that both sides should take a close look at their motives and actions, and stop hurting each other. He had a golden opportunity to take moral leadership. And he muffed it. (This is still a best-case read on it, remember.) He tripped over his words. He tried to change the subject. He spoke in half-sentences, as is so often his pattern.
It reminds me — if I may be forgiven for grabbing it out of context — of what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:7-9: “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”
At a moment when the country desperately needed leadership that would unite us, and when the president just might have been thinking reasonably about what we need from him as our leader, he spoke with indistinct notes at best. He left us wondering — no, actually, he slammed the door wide open for the media to tell a message he probably never meant to tell.
America desperately needs clear, compelling moral leadership: leadership that can both show and explain — persuasively! — what’s right and what’s wrong.
What kind of message did Donald Trump mean to send yesterday? That’s debatable. The fact that he left it so wide open to question shows where he fell undeniably short: in his leadership.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.