“I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear that I will … preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” — Jan. 20, 2017
Before taking office, every occupant of the White House swears this same oath to the Constitution, hand on Bible and in front of the entire country.
So why has our current president been unclear about how he views those who have actively opposed the American Constitution? Three historic opponents of the United States — the Confederacy, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union — were all hostile to the U.S. Constitution, yet President Trump hasn’t stood up to them on our behalf.
As a result, Americans are wondering if the president is on our side, forcing us to ask some very uncomfortable questions.
First, why is Trump defending the memory of the Confederacy’s military leaders when they attempted to destroy the Constitution in a rebellion against the federal government? Concern about their loyalty to the Constitution was so strong after the Civil War that incoming federal officials, beginning in 1868, had to state that they would defend the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” to ensure that former Confederates would be faithful America’s charter.
Second, why has our president been less than forceful in opposing neo-Nazis, the American admirers of the German Nazis? The Nazis tried to create a racist world using mass murder to achieve their goals, killing millions of innocents along the way. The only response should be to actively reject neo-Nazis, especially since that group identifies with a former American enemy that killed tens of thousands of American troops during World War II and would have ripped our Constitution to shreds if it had had the chance.
Third, why do we now have multiple investigations underway regarding the relationship between our president’s electoral campaign and Russia? The current Russian leader was a spy for a former adversary — the Soviet Union — a country that opposed our constitutional values across all regions of the world. Our Intelligence Community assesses that Russia invaded our democracy, possibly to help Trump win. Trump should clearly condemn Russia for its hostile actions against our country and Constitution, as both parties in Congress do, yet he hasn’t thus far.
Nonetheless, despite these difficult questions, there is some good news.
For example, James Murdoch, the chairman of 21st Century Fox, which is the parent company of FOX News, donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League in the wake of both Charlottesville and the president’s response. When he donated the funds, he reminded us that “vigilance against hate and bigotry is an eternal obligation — a necessary discipline for the preservation of our way of life and our ideals.”
The American public’s response to Charlottesville, just like Murdoch’s, has been energized in favor of tolerance, openness and diversity. Yet we still have much more work to do, including preserving clarity about our country’s own history so that we can make the right decisions today.
For example, in what were the most head-spinning words uttered by the president during his response to the Charlottesville violence, he misrepresented the legacy of George Washington, America’s founding father. Trump essentially said that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was no different than Washington.
Let’s be clear: Lee fought to destroy the United States while Washington fought to create it.
The debate about Lee and Washington — which centers on the question of whether to take down Confederate statues — has another clear dividing line. Lee fought to maintain the enslavement of African Americans while Washington privately called for a gradual end to slavery and a freeing of the slaves he owned upon his death. These are difficult topics, but misconstruing our country’s history does a tremendous disservice to our present.
So why did Trump imply that there was an equivalency between the two men? Does he really support keeping Confederate statues in place? Or perhaps, was he just avoiding standing up to his deepest political base?
We need him to stand up for all Americans, not just for the statues, spies and admirers of former opponents of the Constitution.
Maybe the president should take a lesson from his most admired Cabinet official, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. She made her name by taking down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State Capitol after the shootings of African-American churchgoers by a white supremacist. As South Carolina’s then-governor, Haley understood that there was only one side when it came to American values: the American side, as rooted in our Constitution. For her, the Confederacy had to go.
So, for now, let’s hope that our president remembers the oath he took just six months ago to defend the American Constitution. Doing so will help guide him, as it has guided many American presidents, in making clear just who’s side he’s on during these difficult days.
Joel Rubin is a visiting fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management in Washington, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and former congressional candidate.