I spent last Saturday night — the night of the neo-Nazi rally and the tragic murder — at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, watching a fine performance of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” The play takes place in a French village, where the drunkard Berenger is witness to something bizarre: slowly, the townsfolk are turning into rhinos. Ionesco, whose mother was from a Sephardic Jewish family, wrote the play based on his experiences in Romania in the 1930s, when, one by one, his social circle turned on him and embraced fascist leaders and their ideologies.
I was still reeling from the astonishing fact that President Donald Trump had just equated white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK with the people who took to the streets to stop them. Earlier that day, Trump refused to name and shame these people even after one of them allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
What was happening onstage paralleled the world outside.
Onstage, the protagonist Berenger explains to his girlfriend, Daisy, one way the rhinos multiply.
“Sometimes one does harm without meaning to,” he says, “or rather one allows it to go unchecked.”
And when Berenger’s co-worker dismisses accounts that the streets are now filled with citizens-turned-rhinos, Berenger shows him the morning headlines.
“I never believe journalists,” Botard says. “They’re all liars. I don’t need them to tell me what to think; I believe what I see with my own eyes.”
The audience didn’t know whether to clap, laugh or groan — I heard all three.
By the end of the play, all the townsfolk but Berenger become rhinos. Some because that’s what they want. Some because the radio is broadcasting nothing but rhino messages. Some because everyone else is. What appeared grotesque in Act 1 seems perfectly normal by Act 3.
“We must adapt ourselves and try and get on with them,” Daisy says when only she and Berenger are left unchanged. “After all, perhaps it is we who need saving. Perhaps we are the abnormal ones.”
It was no accident the PRT chose to mount Ionesco’s 1959 classic. In his recent treatise “On Tyranny,” historian Timothy Snyder uses the play as his proof text of how democratic societies go dark.
“Ionesco’s aim was to help us see just how bizarre propaganda actually is, but how normal it seems to those who yield to it,” Snyder writes. “By using the absurd image of the rhinoceros, Ionesco was trying to shock people into noticing the strangeness of what was actually happening. The Rhinoceri are roaming through our neurological savannahs. … And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
When the play originally came out, it was a sensation in Israel — a country whose populace was still reeling from a European outbreak of “rhinoceritis.” Soon, there was even a Hebrew word, hitcarnfut, from the root for “horn,” to describe someone who falls under the spell of any beastly ism. The Jews figured there needed to be a word for it, since what are the odds it wouldn’t happen again?
After the cast took a much-deserved curtain call, I went home and stared at the images of the neo-Nazis who marched and killed in Charlottesville. It made what the president said – and kept saying— even less excusable.
It was a march organized by a nationwide group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, America Firsters and Confederate throwbacks that spurred the violence in the first place. They converged on Charlottesville sporting swastikas and swaddled in Confederate flags, emblazoned with the latest in 1930s Fascist emblems. They carried semi-automatic weapons and sported militia costumes. Their ostensible cause was to protest the long-planned transfer of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a town square to a town park.
The marchers alternated chants of, “You will not replace us!” with “Jews will not replace us!” They intimidated Jewish reporters and chanted the Nazi straight-outta-Nuremberg slogan “Blood and Soil!” One of the flyers that brought out the crowds featured a “Unite the Right!” slogan and a Star of David.
When counterprotesters came out to thwart them, things got ugly. Maybe it would have been cleaner had the counterprotesters stood by and waited for the wannabes to pass, but Jews tried that in the 1930s and it didn’t work out so well. That fact alone gave the president a perfect opportunity to pick sides: either the guys with swastikas and Nazi slogans and guns, or the people standing up to them.
In the immediate aftermath, Trump refused to choose.
After waiting far too long, he made a statement. He condemned violence “on many sides.” If it wasn’t clear that he was apportioning blame equally between the people who marched in support of slavery and killing Jews and those who opposed them, he repeated that phrase, “on many sides.”
Trump — the father and grandfather and father-in-law of Jews — refused to blame the neo-Nazis.
“I’m here to spread ideas, talk, in the hopes that someone more capable will come along,” rally co-organizer Christopher Cantwell told VICE News, “somebody like Donald Trump who does not give his daughter to a Jew…. I don’t think you can feel about race the way I do, and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl.”
These were the people Donald Trump, best friend of the Jews, refused to hold accountable. Refused to threaten them with anywhere near the fire and fury he uses to lash out at North Korea, James Comey, Sen. Mitch McConnell, CNN or The New York Times.
It was no less than a betrayal.
I’ve disagreed with other presidents, Democrats and Republicans. I’ve protested their policies. But I never felt that any of them betrayed me. This wasn’t a close call. It was lob across home plate, which in this case stands for human decency and patriotism.
But Trump couldn’t do it.
Instead of slapping back the instigators of all this violence, my president gave them cover to go on. The protestors were able to tell themselves, “We’re no worse than them — even the president said so.” In one statement after another, Trump leveled the playing field between good and evil.
It was a missed opportunity. The movement, such as it is, is still miniscule. There weren’t that many of them — maybe 1,000? The amount of media attention they sucked up was far out of proportion to their importance or danger. That same weekend, nine people were killed and 30 others were wounded in shootings across Chicago. Zero national coverage.
But that even made the president’s task more important. Calm the country, call out these miscreants for what they are, and focus our attention on more pressing matters. This was the time to brush them back, to rally the better angels before things get out of hand.
The reaction to Trump’s shameful statement was swift and bipartisan.
Republican Sen. John McCain tweeted, “White supremacists aren’t patriots, they’re traitors — Americans must unite against hatred & bigotry.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz called for a federal hate crime prosecution.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose founder Rabbi Marvin Hier gave a benediction at Trump’s inauguration, said in a statement, “We call upon all American leaders, whatever their political affiliations, led by President Trump, to specifically condemn the extreme alt-right and white nationalists who sow seeds of hate, distrust and violence.”
“”When I was a kid,” the actor Joshua Malina tweeted, “the Nazis were the bad guys.”
For years, Trump and his supporters accused President Barack Obama of refusing to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Although Obama repeatedly condemned the terrorists — and put a bullet through the head of their leader, Osama bin Laden — he opened himself to the entirely valid criticism that by not naming the problem, you avoid the problem.
But here Trump was doing the exact same thing, refusing to name and condemn the terrorists in his own backyard.
Forty-eight hours after his first statement, Trump read off his second. The headline in The New York Times — two full days after Charlottesville — read, “Trump, Bowing to Pressure, Rebukes White Supremacists.”
I read it twice. It’s 2017. And everything you need to know about what’s sideways about America is between those two commas: “Bowing to pressure.”
What does it say about the president of the United States of America that getting him to name and shame white supremacists is like getting him to say “uncle?”
“Racism is evil,” President Trump read from his TelePrompTer from the White House, “and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and other hate groups who are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
It was better, like any do-over. But the white supremacists on the internet said he was doing it just to calm the critics or to kowtow to them.
“He said EVERYONE INVOLVED will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. that includes Antifa and BLM,” one pro-Trump Reddit user wrote, referring to anti-fascists and Back Lives Matter.
“By ‘other hate groups,’ ” wrote someone on the neo-Nazi Stormfront site, “he means the real hate groups in America, the Anti-White ones.”
This was something the neo-Nazis and the rest of humanity agreed upon: Trump’s second statement was for show, the first for real.
John Podhoretz, writing in Commentary, ventured a guess as to why. These same protesters, he said, represented the solid core or Trump’s supporters, the people who gave him the initial oomph in his race for president.
And that core, Podhoretz wrote, “is governed by rage, hatred, a sense of being wronged, and the loathing of others due to race and national origin. They are numerically insignificant to a man who secured 63 million votes in November 2016. But he … seems to feel they are necessary to the constitution of his core. And he basically let them off with a mild warning.”
They are young — the murder suspect himself was just 20 years old. Their world is a digital echo chamber. On Facebook and Reddit, their posts and comments are a Freudian playground of thwarted desire and sexual insecurity. Everyone not them is “gay” or a “faggot” or “cuck,” the alt-right put-down meaning cuckold. In their sexual obsession, their need for belonging and their delusions of Jewish dominance, these young men are not so different from the lost, horny and hate-filled ISIS fighters they must despise.
And why the Jews? How did we get dragged into a dispute over Robert E. Lee? Yes, Charlotteville Mayor Michael Signer, who stood up to the mob and showed the president what leadership looks like, happens to be Jewish. But that’s a coincidence; the obsession predates him. In fact, it’s astonishing that no matter how the leaders of the alt-right try to pretty up the movement, its true, ugly credo wills out. It’s the Jews’ fault.
A day after the violence, far-right talk radio lunatic Alex Jones claimed that the right-wing protesters who caused the violence were actually “Jewish actors,” who infiltrated the ranks to make the movement look bad.
“Nothing against Jews in general,” Jones said, “ but there are leftist Jews that want to create this clash and they go dress up as Nazis. I have footage in Austin … where it literally looks like the cast of ‘Seinfeld’ or like Howard Stern in a Nazi outfit… it’s all just meant to create the clash.”
These were the voices Trump bowed to on Tuesday, Aug. 15, when he took to the microphone again – to double down on his original equivocation.
“You had very fine people in both groups,” he said at a press conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
When reporters repeatedly pressed him on whether he was equating neo-Nazis and the counter-protesters, the President made it clear: he was.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at ’em – excuse me,” he said.
Was Trump on to something? No. According to an Anti-Defamation League study, of at least 372 murders that were committed by domestic extremists between 2007 and 2016, 74 percent were committed by right-wing extremists and 24 percent by Muslim extremists. Left-wing extremists? 2 percent.
Later, Trump compared Robert E. Lee, a traitor who fought to tear apart the United States that Trump is president of, with George Washington, who fought to liberate and create the country.
When it was over, KKK leader David Duke couldn’t have been happier.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” he tweeted.
There’s no real way to explain this lunacy other than to look back. A not especially creative crowd can’t invent a new enemy, so it steals an old one.
“The rats are still down there in the sewers, brooding,” says Jean Tarrou in Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” “and the Plague is still down there with them, and that Plague will one day again send up its rats to die once more on the streets of a free city … ”
You don’t get rid of hate; you just have to be prepared, always, to fight it. It appears we now have to do battle with a feckless president. Will he ever develop a spine? Will he ever stand for the values of his party, much less America?
Or will he continue to equivocate as the plague spreads to engulf us all? Who knows? As Ionesco himself once said, “You can only predict things after they have happened.”