President Trump missed an opportunity to bring the country together around the racially charged issue that most unites us: the unequivocal rejection of obvious hate groups. How then will he, and the wider public, fare when discussing matters where we are much more divided?
We are not off to a good start. Just as Trump said some of the right things in the aftermath of Charlottesville only to undermine them in search of "very fine people" at a white supremacist rally, he has gone on to raise some legitimate issues in the most ham-fisted way possible.
This is unfortunate, because these are important questions. How do we deal with historical figures who were flawed men and women? How do we balance honoring the virtues of our country with recognition of its original sin, racism? How should the public square contend with symbols of our past that divide the American people in the present?
The answers aren't as easy as they first appear. Before Nikki Haley was Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, she was governor of South Carolina. She grappled with the fact a flag flew on state capitol grounds that meant very different things to do different groups of South Carolinians — both of whom paid taxes, sacrificed in our wars and in many cases were descended from people who bled either as Confederate soldiers in the Civil War or as slaves in the antebellum South.
Haley made the decision to take the flag down. While Trump worries that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson will be next, the logic for stopping with symbols of the Confederacy rather than proceeding to those of the Founding Fathers seems sound: we celebrate Washington and Jefferson in spite of slavery; slavery was an important part of why Confederate generals fought in the first place.
Yet many Americans do not in fact accept this logic. There remains substantial support for preserving statutes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, especially among white Americans. The same is true of the view that Confederate flags and statues represent Southern pride rather than racism.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are American liberals who would like to see the statues of Washington and Jefferson come down too, just as Trump said. There are athletes refusing to stand not for the Confederate flag but the American flag and national anthem, in protest of racial injustices.
Conservatives are quick to point out that liberal heroes like Woodrow Wilson and even the iconic Franklin D. Roosevelt were racist in thought or deed by today's standards. The attempts to draw a straight line from the Civil War Democratic Party to Barack Obama's don't hold up well. But there were white supremacists among key Progressive Era leaders and explicit segregationists were a bigger part of the New Deal coalition than Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy.
In a celebrated essay advocating reparations for slavery, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote "white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it."
Trump stumbled when he wouldn't identify the typical Charlottesville protester as white supremacists, while being less precise about the extent to which the counter-protesters violent "Antifa." Some of his detractors are more expansive in their use of the phrase white supremacist than describing David Duke or Richard Spencer.
A story in the New Republic described Trump's protectionist trade policies as not just economically misguided but a form of white supremacy, including his attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement. (This may come as a surprise to Jesse Jackson or members of the Congressional Black Caucus who opposed NAFTA.)
Even pre-Trump, the Republican Party has been labeled a white supremacist party, with Paul Ryan or Ronald Reagan as culpable as anybody in the current administration. That's undoubtedly a factor in why Republican voters have often been slow to take seriously the racial controversies that have engulfed Trump in his short political career.
It's one area that unites the alt-right and the hard left: presenting racism and leftism as the only available choices.
When Bill Clinton was president, there were frequent calls for a national conversation on race. What is needed is a discussion far more nuanced and complex than any Trump is capable of leading. Can the American people succeed where their leaders have so far failed?