COLUMN: Trump failed test of moral leadership with Charlottesville

Many in America share responsibility for what happened in Virginia.

ByMatthew Dowd
August 15, 2017, 1:06 PM

— -- The preamble to the Constitution of the United States begins, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union...".

Watching the tragic events in Charlottesville makes clear that we are still very much in the process of forming a more perfect union. We aren't there yet, not by a long shot.

Many people thought the successful election of our first African-American president had closed the chapter on race-based hate in America, forgetting that it took more than 200 years to reach that milestone. We also have yet to elect the first woman president.

Charlottesville shows we are nowhere near ending racial hate in America, and that we are in desperate need of moral leadership to take us beyond tribalism and ignorance in order to form a more perfect union.

I love America. I love the ideals at the root of our founding and the example we have set throughout our history for the world.

But let's not kid ourselves. American history is filled with instances of us acting on our worst instincts and displaying a clannish nature.

Even our founders who wrote the beautiful words in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution didn't always live up to them. Though they wrote that "all men are created equal," they made laws that treated men -- and women -- unequally.

In the name of Manifest Destiny, we pushed aside and committed atrocities against the native peoples who first occupied this land.

It took nearly 100 years after our country's founding to ban slavery and grant blacks the right to vote, and another 100 years before we passed civil rights legislation to ensure blacks were treated equally under the law. Women didn't get the right to vote until almost 150 years after the Declaration of Independence, and that came only then when good people demanded it and protested.

In our history we have put Japanese-Americans in internment camps out of an irrational fear. Gov. George Wallace was not long ago a political leader based on his appealing to bigotry, hate and fear. Jews, Catholics, Chinese, Latinos, Muslims are among the groups who have suffered discrimination in our country because of how they looked or worshiped.

And then last year we watched as a campaign run by the person who is now president sought to appeal to fear, division and hatred to win.

Must we ask, "How could Charlottesville happen?"

The open display there of white nationalism and racism reflects a larger, deeper problem.

Although many Americans were quick to denounce the gathering of neo-Nazis and white nationalists and the attack that killed a young woman counterprotester, President Trump's reaction was anything but swift, immediate and strong. He wavered and waffled in a key moment, and the criticism he is receiving is more than justified.

We still haven't finished forming a more perfect union.

President Franklin Roosevelt once said that the preeminent power of the presidency is moral leadership.

If that is the test, then President Trump has thus far failed to exhibit the moral values that are supposed to define our country.

And that is not only a missed opportunity, it makes me sad for our country.

PHOTO: Rescue workers move victims on stretchers after car plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.
Rescue workers move victims on stretchers after car plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators marching through the downtown shopping district Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Many of us in America share responsibility for what happened in Virginia.If you use hate and division to rally people, you share in it. If you point at Mexicans or Muslims as the problem, you share in it. If you don't call out leaders who use desired ends to justify questionable means, who look the other way at racism and white nationalism because adherents may vote for them or their party, you share in it.

If you use or celebrate the Confederate flag or statues to advance a hate agenda, you share in it.

We are all far from perfect, but we should strive to perfect ourselves and treat all others with respect, dignity and love. So too should our leaders.

Americans must stand up and demand more than politics as usual from our elected officials and hold them accountable for what is unfolding in America today.

I believe we will get through all this and come out the other side better, but there is no guarantee of that unless the best of us stand up and lead our leaders.

As someone once said, democracy is a gift, not a given.

To form that more perfect union that hopefully we all desire, we must act from a place of love, not fear. That is the only path to the dream of so many who sacrificed their all. We owe it to them to be better than this.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.

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