LEXINGTON, Ky. — This is no time for equivocation. It is a time to speak clearly and plainly about bedrock principles of our country, because they are under attack. From the top.
The president of the United States put white supremacists on the same moral plane as people who protest against them, one of whom was killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.
Seeking a more popular way to frame the issue, President Donald Trump more recently objected to the removal of Confederate monuments — like the one up for removal in Charlottesville, the one Louisville sent to Brandenburg, and the two the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council just voted to move from the old courthouse it is turning into a visitor center.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer have made clear where they stand: Statues of people who fought to preserve slavery should not hold prominent places of honor.
It’s less clear where Gov. Matt Bevin stands, because he no longer espouses the idea he endorsed as a candidate: moving the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the state Capitol rotunda.
To his credit, Bevin does say all the right things about hate and bigotry having no place in Kentucky, as does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But McConnell hasn’t criticized Trump directly, as some of his fellow Republican senators have. (Bob Corker of Tennessee even said Trump lacks “stability.”) As majority leader, McConnell needs to maintain at least a businesslike relationship with the impulsive egomaniac in the White House, as noted previously in this space. That relationship was already at risk; Trump has repeatedly blamed McConnell for Republicans’ failure to pass a health-insurance bill.
But as a party leader, McConnell can’t allow Trump to turn the GOP into a personality cult. And as a national leader, he has a responsibility to make clear that Trump’s behavior is unacceptable.
He has tried to have his cake and eat it too, allowing “two sources close to the senator” to leak that he was “livid” about Trump’s remarks — made with McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, at Trump’s side during a press conference called to discuss infrastructure.
I have no doubt of that. McConnell spent his early youth in Alabama, but came of age in Louisville, and worked for John Sherman Cooper, the moderate Republican who voted for civil-rights bills. When McConnell went to the Senate in 1985, he became one of the few Republicans to back sanctions of apartheid in South Africa. You have to wonder what Cooper would think and do now.
McConnell and other Republican leaders face an existential problem: a president who is increasingly at war with the party that was the victim of his hostile takeover in last year’s nominating process. Last week he even endorsed a primary challenger to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the Republican who has objected most strongly to Trump’s behavior.
Polls show Trump slipping, but his core support remains strong. He could cause problems for other Republican incumbents in primaries, or discourage his supporters from voting for them in the general election. He could do that, and they would do that, even if Congress bit the bullet, impeached him and removed him from office. But at some point, the nation must matter more than politics.
Things in Kentucky are less fraught, but Bevin governs a state that has more Confederate monuments (41) than any state that didn’t secede. Maybe he didn’t realize that in 2015, when, as the Republican nominee, he said a more appropriate place for the Jeff Davis statue would be a museum, “not on government property.” Asked this week if he opposed removal of Confederate statues from government property, he said, “I don’t think it is a given that that’s a good idea. I don’t. I never have.”
Bevin said “every instance is different” and he wouldn’t comment on “what happens in another state or even specific cities within this state.” Earlier, he said, “I think it is a very dangerous precedent to pretend that your history is not your history. It doesn’t mean you have to embrace it; it doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, or even like it. But to pretend it did not exist, to remove it from the landscape of discussion, and the ability to learn from, is a very dangerous proposition.”
That is not what Gray has proposed for the statues of John C. Breckinridge, who was congressman, vice president and U.S. senator and before becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war, and Gen. John Hunt Morgan, the Confederacy’s most notorious raider. Gray first proposed relocating them to the city’s Veterans Park, but dropped that idea because of neighborhood opposition, and is looking for another site.
The statues stand in front of the old Fayette County Courthouse, on the same lot that hosted one of the nation’s largest slave markets. Neither statue belongs in such a place. Breckinridge deserves some honor, because of his service to the United States, but not there. Morgan, like all soldiers, deserves respect for his courage, but his statue would work better in Cynthiana, scene of the defeat that ended his raiding days, as documented in the recent book Rebel Town by Bill Penn.
Trump’s embrace of such memorials will encourage more protests. Those who join them should heed the advice of Republican strategist Scott Jennings of Louisville on CNN, in rebutting Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” line last week: “If a good person … showed up and the person next to them was holding a Nazi flag, and they chose not to go home, then by definition, they checked their good-person card at the gate.”
Al Cross, a former CJ political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.