The Speech Trump Should Have Made After Charlottesville

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

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.

GettyImages-810870312 A Ku Klux Klan member at the rally calling for the protection of Southern Confederate monuments, in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 8, 2017. The afternoon rally in this quiet university town had been authorized by officials in Virginia and stirred heated debate in America, where critics say the far right has been energized by Donald Trump's election to the presidency. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty

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:

HERE WAS BURIED

THOMAS JEFFERSON

AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE

OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

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 slave owners 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. They 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 not 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.

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens professor of law at Cornell University. He blogs at DorfOnLaw.org.