The past few days have been among the darkest of Donald J. Trump’s nascent presidency, as well as the most disturbing.
It’s hard to wrap our brains around the current American pastoral that’s being written in some of our forgotten towns and cities. It’s a story of anger, resentment and, in at least one place, unadulterated hatred, the likes of which most of my generation has never seen face-to-face.
But as difficult as it is for you and me, in 2017, to fathom a neo-Nazi rally bursting into violence, leaving one dead and 19 injured in one of our quaintest college towns, just imagine you’re a WWII veteran like Herb McClure.
He was assigned to the 90th Infantry Division, 357th Battalion, known as the “Tough ’Ombres,” believe it or not, and headed to Belgium in January of 1945, just as bone-chilling, sub-zero temperatures set in, according to a Tulsa World profile.
After serving on an infantry mortar crew, and losing some of his hearing to the 105mm howitzers firing a few feet above his head, he was later one of few soldiers to see actual justice served while standing guard at the hangings of convicted Nazi war criminals at Landsberg Prison. He couldn’t see their faces, but he says he heard the thump of the rope tightening 28 times.
Or put yourself in Thomas Mangrum’s shoes. Thomas had learned Morse code in the Boy Scouts, and was one of few black soldiers in WWII to be trained in coding and radio repair. He served with the 761st Tank Battalion, an African-American tank unit that would earn the respect of Gen. George Patton himself.
“I took a lot of chances,” he said in an interview. “It’s a funny thing. When you’re in combat, you go crazy. You see men dying and you’re anxious to get payback.”
White supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend chanted Nazi slogans that McClure and Mangrum may have heard as young soldiers, chants like “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” They carried swastikas and racist emblems of the alt-right.
Who knows? Maybe Herb and Thomas see Trump as disassociated from the hatred in Charlottesville. Maybe one or both even voted for him. But it’s hard to imagine they thought that some 70 years later, having endured not only the ravages of WWII, but Herb the Great Depression and Thomas a segregated South, they are now living out their twilight years in an America where the fascism and racism they helped stamp out in Europe is rearing its ugly head once more.
Fortunately, the likelihood that 21st century America will be swept up in the racial and cultural animus that led to WWII is slim. But the president has done little to allay fears and calm tensions.
His initial statement on the death of a counter-protester, allegedly run over intentionally by a neo-Nazi marcher, seemingly blamed everyone and no one, but the reaction from one group was gushing.
White supremacists at the website Daily Stormer wrote:
“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us . . . He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied there was hate. . . on both sides! . . . He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
It would take days for Trump to muster a modicum of decency and the bare minimum amount of courage to call these repugnant hate groups out by name, which he then backed off again Tuesday afternoon. But even after he specifically denounced the KKK, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, it was too late for some of his alt-right supporters. They weren’t buying it.
“Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously,” said Richard Spencer, a leader among white nationalists. “I don’t think he meant any of us.”
Why anyone — let alone a sitting president — would coyly court or even tolerate the support of this disturbing fringe element looking to resurrect some of the darkest impulses of the human race, we may never know.
I doubt Trump is sympathetic to fascism. I don’t think he’s given any of that much thought. But whether through his winks or his silence, these groups think they have found a friend. And that is terrible company for a president to keep.
From 1961 to 1993, McClure and Mangrum would have in the White House a president who’d also served in WWII. Since then, none have seen combat. President Trump received five military deferments. One wonders what the courageous veterans of that Second World War think of this troubling moment in time, so bereft of courage and so full of hate.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.
This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
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