Missoula notebook: A sad day in America, and a profound silence from home

A presidential response condemning white nationalists and Neo-Nazis should not be this difficult to formulate, and the silence from Montana’s state and congressional leaders should not be this deep and profound.

On Saturday, white supremacists marched down the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, waving Confederate flags and bearing Nazi symbols, where they were confronted by counter protesters understandably offended by the outward show of bigotry and hate.

The day before, a clan-like rally comprised of torch-bearing white males chanting “you will not replace us” and “white lives matter” took place on the University of Virginia campus. Less than a day later, after the Charlottesville clash, a domestic terrorist and presumed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people, killing at least one and injuring more than a dozen others.

It was a troubling day in America to be sure. But in a measly response, President Donald Trump managed to call the day’s tragedy “so sad!” on Twitter after blaming both sides for the violence, all before going on to promote the nation’s low unemployment rate (and himself), as if the day’s events were something less than significant.

Making matters worse, in his half-baked response, Trump blamed “many sides” for the deadly violence. Today, it seems, we should all accept Nazis and white supremacists the same as a church pastor or community volunteer, as if they were good-hearted and decent people with our best interests in mind.

In his attempts at restoring calm, our new president never mentioned “white nationalists” by name. Perhaps this is insignificant until one considers the months he spent berating former President Barack Obama for never uttering the words “radical Islamic extremists.”

Trump has no problem condemning the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate or members of his own Cabinet. But when it comes to Nazism and white supremacy, it seems this is a subject that’s off limits.

It was clear months ago that we now have an infantile, shady billionaire as a president, and his remarks Saturday on Twitter were no surprise. I didn’t expect anything more. His sad address to the nation in what may be the first domestic crisis of his presidency was equally expected, though one might have thought he would call a spade a spade and put the blame where it belonged.

It should have been easy to do.

But when a significant portion of your supporters come from the alt-right and march under the Nazi emblem wearing hats bearing your own campaign slogan (Make America Great Again), it may be hard to speak against them. His white-supremacist supporters are also looking to return the nation to another time, just like he is.

I’ll let the national media debate these matters, though I feel perfectly suited to ask the question more pressing to most Montanans. Throughout the day, Republicans – from Marco Rubio of Florida to Cory Gardner of Colorado – responded as one would hope and expect their congressional representative to respond, even if the president is unable to speak the words himself.

“Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremicists,” Rubio tweeted at 3:30 p.m.

“Mr. President – we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism,” Gardner tweeted at 2:44 p.m.

There were others as well. “White supremacy is a scourge,” tweeted Rep. Paul Ryan who, by the way, runs the House of Representatives on behalf of the Republican majority. “This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest serving Republican senator in history, said on Twitter: “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”

That was the best response of the day.

I spent the rest of Saturday checking emails, certain that Sen. Steve Daines would offer an official response, or perhaps another member of our congressional delegation. It’s now 9:34 p.m., and while I’ve checked their congressional pages for some statement, there isn’t one, though Daines did issue a tweet earlier in the day.

“This is bigotry. This is racism. These are views we as the American people should reject,” he tweeted.

Beyond that, it was crickets from Montana’s congressional delegation.

Why does this matter? As removed as we may be on the northern tier, we do not live in a vacuum, and what happens in Charlottesville ripples across the nation, all the way to Montana. In fact, locally known white supremacist Richard Spencer even played a roll this weekend in Charlottesville, stirring the pot of hatred as he always does.

Busy as he must have been helping organize events in Virginia, Spencer took time to tweet, “The alt-right is being refused service … at lunch counters … in the South … for engaging in a peaceful demonstration.”

Poor Richard Spencer. Poor white men.

Martin Kidston

While the rest of the nation debates race, violence, the dangers of the alt-right (and the anarchist left), and the undercurrent that survives in Nazism in America, we in Montana get to watch our television while wishing, perhaps, we had someone in leadership to condemn what took place in American today.

It was just 18 months ago that I met another group of self-entitled, banner waving citizens in Missoula who felt that only they should reap the gifts of security and comfort. They stood upon the courthouse lawn that cold winter day holding signs suggesting that people of color (Muslims in this case) “Rape. Kill. Destroy.”

Hence, they weren’t welcome here. But Missoula knew better and it prevailed through courage, strength and unity.

Gifted as we now are with a narcissistic president who finds it impossible to demonstrate leadership when it is needed most, we’ll have to look for assurance closer to home. Sadly, at least tonight, that leadership is nowhere to be found beyond a single Tweet.

Martin Kidston is a former U.S. Marine, a University of Montana graduate and longtime reporter who founded the Missoula Current.