It Is Time for Our Leaders to Lead: Censure the President

ARLINGTON, Mass. — Like those who attended a score of other nearby memorials to the victims of Charlottesville’s madness, those gathered on the lawn of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church here Wednesday sought both community and clarity on how to counter the cancer of hate growing in the era of Donald Trump.

There were speakers and singers. There were tables at which participants could draw protest posters to resist the far-right gathering scheduled on the Boston Common Saturday or send cards of solace to the people of Charlottesville. But if there was plenty of love, there seemed a shortage of leadership.

After my newly elected Democratic state senator introduced herself to the 250 people or so gathered, I walked up to her on the lawn to make a suggestion. “Why doesn’t the Massachusetts Legislature pass a resolution to censure Donald Trump and call on Congress to do the same?” I asked.

She gave me a half smile and said something like, “you know these things are so complicated. It’s hard to get everyone on the same page.”

Really? In this kind of moral crisis?

Our politics left and right seem scattered and disjointed as our president makes a mockery of the American principles of fairness and freedom he is supposed to stand for. As Donald Trump laments the “foolishness” of taking down Confederate statues and praises all those “fine people” among the swastika-wearing, heil-Trump screaming white nationalists in Charlottesville, elected officials at all levels of government seem to be going it alone. Issuing a tweet here. A statement there. Where is the collaborative call for action, which in this case should be bipartisan and, frankly, filled with outrage.

Three – count ‘em three – Democratic representatives have called on their colleagues to censure the president. Instead, damn near every member of Congress – regardless of party – should be signing their names to a resolution to do just that.

So should state legislators and city and village and town councilmen. The message should – no must – be clear. It should resonate loudly. As a poster at that Arlington event said, “when it comes to hate, we cannot equivocate.”

But when it comes to Charlottesville, equivocation is precisely what members of both parties seem in large part to be doing. Or hiding. When Chuck Todd invited all 52 Republican senators and a dozen or so representatives on his MSNBC show Wednesday, not a single one said yes. As of Wednesday morning, Think Progress reported that just 24 of 292 Congressional Republicans had made a statement that called out Trump “directly by name or title.”

Before you go full partisan, Democrats haven’t done a hell of lot better. Three representatives introduce a call for censure? Three? And what about those 48 Democratic senators? Where is the united, bipartisan stand against hatred, overt racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism? Where is the united stand for the values of American democracy?

Let me repeat: This is not — or at least should not be — a partisan issue. In fact, the strongest statement I’ve heard to date came from a Republican, strategist Steve Schmidt during an MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow:

“There can be no equivocation here,” he said. “The moral failure is complete and it’s almost irredeemable. The Republican leaders have to condemn the president for this false equivocation directly by name. They have to censure him or they risk sliding into a moral abyss with him.”

Thank you Mr. Schmidt. And every Democrat has to do the same.

My father fled Nazi Germany in 1935 and arrived in this country a year later. He fought in the U.S. Army during World War II to protect our country and its values and to defeat the most heinous, pathological dictator in at least modern times. So don’t tell me, Mr. Trump, about the “very fine people” marching by torchlight among the wanna-be Nazis in Charlottesville. Don’t equate those who stood up to those trying to intimidate and terrify with those who foment hate. Don’t obfuscate with empty words like alt-right and alt-left, meaningless terms that obscure the meanness of the torch-bearing, Charlottesville, white-supremacist mob.

If vitriolic hatred finds a place in our public spaces — and our First Amendment to an extent guarantees that — it must be fought from the bully pulpit of public servants and above all the president. It can’t be allowed to become comfortable. It certainly can’t be encouraged. Yet we have a president who shrugs and winks and gives the marchers a sly high five.

Granted, censuring the president is largely a symbolic act with little practical impact. (It’s only been done twice before, according to the PBS Newshour, once in 1834 when Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, was censured following his refusal to turn over a document to the Senate, and once in 1848 when the House censured James Polk for the “’’unnecessary’ Mexican-American War.)

But the message of Congressional censure would be unmistakable to all the American people — that no one, not even the president, can drag us back to a bygone era when black Americans were lynched from trees, gays derided and beaten, and synagogues defaced with some regularity. Censure would make clear that fascists and racists won’t be courted by our leaders and if one – even the president – does just that he will be isolated and ostracized.

That is an important message. An essential one, in my book.

Nearly a week has passed since the ugliness in Charlottesville.

It is past time for our so-called public servants to get off their tired bums and respond to these events in a dignified, coherent, cohesive and united manner. Our democracy is a precious and fragile thing. It demands leadership, which begins with moral clarity, not ever-shifting pronouncements buffeted by the winds of polling.

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