Most of us are Americans not by choice, but by accident of birth. Naturalized immigrants make an affirmative choice to join the citizenry, but the rest of us just found ourselves here. And because we don’t choose where we’re born, we also don’t choose our history. To grow up and become a thoughtful citizen of the United States is, to a large extent, a process of learning how to navigate contradictions—none greater than a founding declaration that asserts the self-evident truth of human equality in the course of establishing a slave-owning nation that would achieve slavery’s abolition only through civil war. As perhaps no other single American can be, Thomas Jefferson is emblematic of these contradictions, and so it was fitting that Charlottesville, where Jefferson built Monticello and founded the University of Virginia, should become the latest battleground over American self-understanding.
But it wasn’t a statue of Jefferson whose removal brought a horde of white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and neo-Nazis to Charlottesville. It was a statue of Robert E. Lee, the general who led an insurrection against the country Jefferson helped found. We have to confront Jefferson as the founder of a great university, as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as a slaveowner and race theorist. In some ways, we don’t have a choice: We live in the country he worked to build, for better and for worse.
The catastrophic press conference that President Trump just stumbled his way through will be infamous for his attempt to give the “both-sides” treatment to a confrontation between Nazis and, well, anti-Nazis. “I think there is blame on both sides,” the President said, adding: “You also had some very fine people on both sides.” That was extraordinary, but not, to be precise, especially novel: We already know that the President admires white nationalists, since he’s hired so many of them. And as he loves to remind us, he hires the best people.
What is slightly more novel about Trump’s dimwitted attempt to interpret the events at Charlottesville is his brief foray into almost nihilistic equivocation—a stance he’s articulated once before, to the best of my recollection (in his shrug at Vladimir Putin’s brutality: “You think our country’s so innocent?”). Here, that same equivocation is directed toward American history. Speaking (I suppose) rhetorically about statue removals, Trump said: “So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee, I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself: Where does it stop?”
In other words, the President of the United States—the man who leads the republic that Washington and Jefferson founded, and that Jackson and Lee tried to destroy—thinks there is no way of distinguishing between them. That’s not only because he sympathizes with the bigots who descended on Charlottesville. It’s because he is so utterly bereft of a moral compass that he can’t tell the difference between the ambiguities that our history and our ideals force us to wrestle with and the outrages they compel us to reject. As long as we live in the country built by figures like Jefferson, we have to reckon with that legacy—we have to work out, in the everyday project of democracy, what it means. But we don’t have to commemorate Lee, who built nothing and tried to destroy what is good about this flawed, contradictory country. Understanding that difference is everything. That Trump doesn’t, and is belligerently proud of it, would be disheartening to witness in a citizen. In a president, it is grotesque and disqualifying.