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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Trump must heed the lessons of Charlottesville 

The US president has alienated mainstream American opinion in the fallout from events in Virginia. He could learn from Vladimir Putin, the leader he most admires, writes Alan Philps

The US president's late condemnation of white supremacists on Monday, followed by assigning blame to both sides on Tuesday, struck a nerve with those protesting white supremacists. Steve Helber/AP
The US president's late condemnation of white supremacists on Monday, followed by assigning blame to both sides on Tuesday, struck a nerve with those protesting white supremacists. Steve Helber/AP

The trouble with the past, as the novelist William Faulkner said, is that it is never dead. It is not even past. America has been reminded of this bitter truth after its president Donald Trump revealed his innermost thoughts on one of the most divisive issues in the country, race and the legacy of the Civil War.

The Civil War crashed into the headlines when far-right groups, including men with guns and body armour and neo-Nazi symbols, staged a march in the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest at a decision to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederate general. Lee commanded an army against the US government of the time, defending the slave-owning southern states against the industrial capitalism of the Yankees in the north.

Mr Trump has alienated mainstream American opinion, including conservative Republicans, by failing to single out for blame the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who provoked the unrest, which included one of the so-called “alt-right” protesters driving a car into the counter-demonstrators and killing a young woman. By establishing a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racists he has upset a Washington consensus dating back to the 1970s.

Admittedly he was prevailed on by his aides on Monday to denounce racists including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis as “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans”. But on Tuesday, in an unscripted statement, he returned to his original view, blaming the media for demonising the far right.

Supporters of the Confederate cause maintain they are honouring their forefathers who died in the civil war 150 years ago and standing against tyranny from Washington, not glorifying slavery and segregation. But the tyranny from Washington that seems to most exercise the marchers is the equal rights agenda of the liberal elite.

One explanation of this intrusion of historic hurts into public discourse is that a civil war leaves an indelible scar on a society. But that is not necessarily true. The foreign leader that Mr Trump most admires, Vladimir Putin, has spent the past 17 years patching up the wounds of Russia’s tormented 20th century.

How successful he has been will become clear this year, the centenary of the 1917 revolutions which toppled the Romanov dynasty and then brought Lenin’s Bolsheviks to power, leading to famine, civil war and mass starvation as Stalin transformed a peasant economy into an industrial state.

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Prior to Mr Putin, there was a clear line in Russian history between the empire and the Soviet period – which the late president Boris Yeltsin described as a “totalitarian nightmare”. Mr Putin has now woven an uninterrupted narrative linking the Romanov tsars and the Soviet commissars with modern Russia.

The thread that unites this history is most clearly seen in the gold and black ribbon of St George. This was used as symbol of military prowess in tsarist times, was given a brief outing by Stalin in 1945 as the victory medal at the end of the Second World War and is now used all over the country as a pro-Putin patriotic banner adorning wrists and flying from car aerials.

Though clearly a man moulded by a Soviet education for whom the collapse of the USSR was the defining experience of his life, he has gone out of his way to reconcile with the Whites – the aristocrats, officers and merchants who were the losing side in the 1918-21 civil war. He has also reunited the Russian Orthodox Church, which split during the Soviet period.

All this – coupled with his ever growing control of the Russian mass media – has allowed Mr Putin to appear in the previously unthinkable guise of the man who is restoring what was lost both in 1917 (the pomp and cultural brilliance of the empire) and in 1991 (superpower status). It is through this lens that his annexation of Crimea is viewed at home – a Russian territory thoughtlessly transferred to Ukraine in the Soviet period which has now been reunited with Mother Russia.

It could be argued that the authoritarian Putin method has little relevance to American democracy. You can be sure that armed protesters in military formation bearing Nazi symbols would not get far in Russia. In the United States, the constitution permits the strangest things. Nor in the US could a top official proclaim, as happened this year in Moscow, that events such as those of 1917 “cannot be painted in black and white” – and for this advice to be heeded by the country’s historians, newspapers and TV companies.

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But there is still a lesson here. The right leader with the right approach can bridge a lot of divides even those caused by a civil war in which one side crushed the other. Mr Trump could have done some of this. He was elected in part due to the support of the so-called “alt-right” – the coalition of forces including the white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan which emerged in opposition to Barack Obama personally and to Washington-style conservatism in general.

Once elected he could have stepped away from these extremists, as he no longer needed them, while telling them he had heard their complaints but there were limits to what he would tolerate. Instead he seems to have reverted to his gut feelings.

This may be because he feels he won the election by heeding the advice of Steve Bannon, the alt-right sympathiser now his chief strategist, who told him during the campaign to stick to his guns as an outsider and not move to the centre ground, as conventional wisdom dictates.

Mr Bannon is said to be bent on a goal no less comprehensive than “deconstructing the administrative state”. That would mean sending home most of the people who work in Washington.

So long as that is the advice that Mr Trump is hearing, then he is not going to follow Mr Putin in bridging civil war divisions. Rather, he is embarking on a revolution himself.

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