Presidents have to wear many hats. Outside of the actual duties of the job, as laid out by the constitution, they also have to sometimes serve as moral leaders, mourners in chief and wise, empathetic “dad” to the American public. The good ones know how to give voice to our anxiety, our pride, our pain and our anger. Where Ronald Reagan was masterful at communicating to the American public with sincerity, our current president—who burns through communications directors the way Spinal Tap burns through drummers—is the exact opposite.
Because I’m a communications hack by day, I’ve been viewing the post-Charlottesville events unfold through my public relations prism. Bottom line: this president and this White House couldn’t have botched it more if they tried. If I were the White House communications director for a day (which is about how long they usually last), I have my own thoughts on how I would’ve advised this president on what to say in response to Charlottesville.
Let me break it down for you in parts.
Part I: The Initial Statement
This is a delicate matter. In times of national crisis and/or tragedy, the nation looks to the president for reassurance and validation. Trump blew it. He absolutely blew it. You don’t tweet at an event like what we witness last weekend. That should never be the president’s first reaction.
Instead, the president must deliver a statement that conveys empathy, condolences and a sharp rebuke against Nazis. In the pantheon of political no-brainers, opposing Nazis is about as easy as it gets; or so we thought.
Anyway, if I were the White House Communications Director, I would’ve advised the president to deliver a statement that goes something like this:
My fellow Americans.
You are all aware by now of the awful tragedy that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend. Like you, I am appalled, saddened and angered by the violence and tragic loss of three lives. The awful events of this weekend were set in motion by a gathering of hate groups with long histories of violence in this nation. These racist organizations took to a college campus to foment fear, hatred and to spread their racist ideology.
Let me be clear: these hate groups are an abomination to our American values and our American way of life. Nazis, white nationalists and racism have no place in civilized society. In no uncertain terms, you are not welcome here. I am instructing the Justice Department to conduct a full and thorough investigation of this weekend’s tragic events. I am also instructing the Department of Homeland Security to regard these hate groups as terrorist organizations that must be eradicated.
Our constitution avails all Americans the right to free speech, but it does not avail rights to hate groups to spread their pernicious ideology of hatred.
What cannot be lost in all this is the loss of human life today. We mourn for Heather Heyer, a bright young woman who felt her true purpose in life was to spread a message of love and hope. We also mourn for Virginia state troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Pilot Berk Bates who tragically died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the protests. I offer my deepest condolences to the families of these three victims.
Throughout the history of our great nation, we have encountered civil unrest too often as a result of racism. While I understand and appreciate the passion and dedication of those who speak out against racism in all its forms, I implore you to not resort to meeting violence with violence. We must appeal to our better angels and spread a message of peace, inclusion and togetherness. Answering violence from this awful scourge with violence will only dampen our efforts to achieve a more perfect union.
I encourage you to continue to speak out, to not allow racism to take root, but to do so peacefully.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” I call upon each of you today to carry Dr. King’s message forward and continue to spread love throughout your communities. This is the only true way—the American way—to stamp out this threat to our great society once and for all.
May God bless you, may God bless our fallen victims and their families, and may God bless these United States of America.
I know it’s not perfect, but it’s a first (and only) draft. Either way, you get the point. You offer empathy. You offer condolences. You tell the Nazis they are not welcome. You let the counter-protestors know you’re with them, but you ask for calm and nonviolent means to achieve their goals. You’re knocking it all out in 500 words or fewer.
That’s what a president does. You don’t step in a bear trap. And, by bear trap, I mean the false equivalence of “both sides.” No. Wrong. You condemn violence, but you do not lump counter-protestors in with racists. If you do that, you’re essentially validating the racists’ ideology.
A statement like this inoculates him from falling into a combative, disturbing and horrifying press conference where he gets into a push-and-shove over Confederate statues. Which leads me to…
Part II: The Great Statue Debate
Simply put: PUNT!
I say that because this president doesn’t share my views on the matter. But even if he did, I would advise against taking a hard position on it. Doing so would undermine and unravel the above statement that calls for unity and nonviolence against hate groups.
The goal is to keep the president aligned with the larger issues and to not get pulled into quicksand over hunks of bronze.
No, I’m not trivializing people’s feelings on the statues; but the president needs to focus attention on those about as much as he does the paintjob on Air Force jets.
Let the pundit class deal with the statues.
I would let the press secretary (eeeeeek!) say something like: “The president understands that passion runs deep on these statues in the communities. Therefore, the communities should decide for themselves how to address the issue. The president remains focused on addressing and eliminating future threats from racist hate groups.”
Also, what not to do: equate two Founding Fathers to Confederate generals. That does you no good at all.
Part III: When in Doubt, Denounce the Nazis
If you wish to be the president of all 50 states, don’t fall into the false equivalence trap. Don’t do the bidding of cable news hacks and Infowars. Just stay away from it. We aren’t talking about the ACLU vs. the Christian Coalition. We aren’t talking about Planned Parenthood vs. Focus on the Family. We’re talking about Nazis. NAZIS! No politician will lose points by denouncing Nazis. But the moment you start lumping other groups in with Nazis—and let’s be clear, NO OTHER GROUPS COMPARE!—you once again validate the racists. Simply put, don’t do it!
Of course, all this is predicated upon the belief that the president will be a rational, pragmatic, empathic, clearheaded and focused leader.
Your mileage may vary.