The two guests on the Fox News program “Fox and Friends” had been invited to talk about the toppling of a North Carolina Confederate monument Wednesday morning in the way cable news often sets up: talking heads at opposite ends of the political spectrum bickering over partisan talking points.
Wendy Osefo, a policy and social justice expert and Johns Hopkins University professor, was there ostensibly to represent left-wing views. Gianno Caldwell came on the program as a Republican strategist.
Both Osefo and Caldwell had agreed to discuss the statue incident before hearing President Donald Trump’s remarks Tuesday that have sparked fierce backlash in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The two guests blew up the entire premise of talking at opposite ends. Instead, they engaged in a discussion over the humanity of the moment and perceived failings of Trump to unequivocally condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
“This is not partisanship. This is human life,” Osefo said to anchor Abby Huntsman in an emotional exchange centered on Trump’s remarks in a combative news conference.
“As a black woman [with] two black boys, my heart bleeds. This is not talking points here. This is personal. And we as a nation, as a country, have to do better,” she added.
Trump received intense bipartisan scrutiny after he said “I think there’s blame on both sides” in violence that killed Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville woman, and injured 19 others when police say a man allegedly linked to neo-Nazi beliefs drove his car into a crowd.
“The monuments are just a symbol of hatred. The president is an embodiment of that hatred,” Osefo told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
Osefo said she originally planned to discuss the protester-led removal of a Confederate statue in her hometown of Durham, N.C., and the experience of growing up as a Nigerian immigrant under the shadow of monuments dedicated to slavery’s defense that her neighbors celebrated.
“It makes you feel like you’re less than equal. The only time the community was unified was when Duke and the University of North Carolina had a basketball game,” she said, describing a dark undercurrent of racism that separated her from white society.
That idea went unaddressed in the segment. Following Osefo’s stinging critique of Trump’s news conference, Huntsman echoed the president, saying “there are good people on both sides” and asked Caldwell if he agreed that dismantling monuments was an affront to history.
The partisan line came crashing down.
“I come today with a very heavy heart,” Caldwell told Huntsman, his emotion building. “Last night I couldn’t sleep at all because President Trump, our president, has literally betrayed the conscience of our country.”
He added: “The very moral fabric in which we have made progress when it comes to race relations in America. He has failed us,” as Osefo nodded in solidarity.
Caldwell told The Post that, like Osefo, he agreed to the segment before hearing Trump’s remarks from Trump Tower. He had prepared to mostly discuss the idea that monuments should only be removed by communities, and not by protesters wielding ropes and ladders.
“To hear tone and tenor, to hear him pacify these white supremacists and general racists – I was completely disgusted. I was shaken,” he told The Post.
On the segment, Caldwell said it had become very troubling for anyone to go on any network and defend what Trump said at the news conference about Charlottesville.
“It’s completely lost and [would have the] potential to be morally bankrupt,” he told Huntsman.
Huntsman pushed back as the camera focused on Caldwell, saying”no” before Caldwell interjected.
“I’m sorry, no, I believe that, and I’m being very honest; as someone who has been talking about these issues for a very long time, I’m sorry that this is where we are right now. I hope the president learns a lesson from his news conference yesterday. It’s disturbing.”
The moment brought tears to Caldwell’s and Osefo’s eyes as Huntsman sought tosteer the conversation back to the statue debate. The two guests did not budge, finding common ground as Huntsman probed new ways to find disagreements on the debate over statue removals becoming a “slippery slope.”
Huntsman later retweeted a woman who said the “theatrics” of the segment were appalling.
“We are all human beings. Everyone deserves to be heard and feel accepted,” she wrote in the tweet she later deleted, the Daily Beast reported.
Osefo told The Post that though Caldwell sits on the other side of the aisle politically, “he’s always my brother.”
“This goes beyond talking points. A mother buried her child because of Charlottesville,” she said.
That Fox and Friends is among Trump’s favorite programs was not lost on Caldwell, who took the opportunity to speak to the president directly.
“I don’t have interest in discussing counterprotesters,” Caldwell said. “My interest is what this president believes and how it impacts people of color.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Alex Horton