While President Trump played it safe in how he condemned Saturday’s violence at a Charlottesville rally of white supremacists protesting removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of rebel forces in the Civil War, Sen. Ted Cruz didn’t spare the rod. The Texas Republican blasted certain elements of the melee for what they are: a clear affront to American values.

“The Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists are repulsive and evil and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred that they propagate,” Cruz said in a statement. “Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.

“These bigots want to tear our country apart, but they will fail. America is far better than this. Our nation was built on fundamental truths, none more central than the proposition ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’”

Given that Cruz and fellow Republicans have been slyly baiting “these bigots” for electoral gain for decades — and with renewed vigor after the nation elected its first black president — Cruz’s statement is reassuring, thoroughly presidential in tone and utterly astonishing. More surprising: the backlash this staunchly conservative lawmaker’s statement prompted on his own Facebook page from scores and scores of Unite the Right sympathizers, including one who branded Cruz “just a raging liberal.”

Some comments are typical of the alt-right in the Age of Trump, including “alternative facts” such as the claim Lee owned no slaves (easily disproved) and how the driver of the car that mowed down liberal protesters was actually a “crazy liberal” and “Democrat Party member.” Other comments included the old chestnut that the Confederacy fought for liberty and states’ rights rather than to keep black people enslaved for generations more for the good of the Southern economy. Yet others went after Black Lives Matter. A sampling of this outcry, lightly edited:

  • “We are ‘saddened and disappointed’ every time another historical monument to our nation’s history is removed from sight! Does that matter to you, Ted Cruz? I, of course, would never condone violence, but how about a stop to the wiping out of any historical references that Americans fought for and died for?”
  • “Obama divided us and it will take violence to overthrow the fascist left. Sad, but it is apparent that there is much more of this to come. I will be glad to see Antifa [liberal anti-fascists] and its ilk gone from the vestiges of history, only a sad footnote of hatred.”
  • “Both groups are Dems. The Nazis were called National Socialist Workers Party of Germany. The right are not socialists and the anarchists definitely are, so it was two Dem groups facing off with each other.”
  • “We will not surrender. What our ancestors fought for was what made us a nation. People could determine if and when a government stopped working for them. Then [Abraham] Lincoln through a facade raised an army and waged war on Americans. Anyone who thinks these statues ought to come down has very extremely lost all my confidence. That includes you, Ted. Don’t make me withdraw my support of you now. We need to take up arms in defense of our heritage. Heed my words: THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN!”

Unite the Right organizers deny any responsibility for the violence that left one counterprotester dead, 19 others hurt. Maybe. Justice certainly demands a thorough investigation of all parties. Then again, many of us also deny any responsibility for our nation’s reaching this sorry state: the Republicans who merrily embraced a presidential candidate who repeatedly and falsely claimed our first black president was foreign-born and thus constitutionally illegitimate; the congress that looked the other way after the Supreme Court declared race no longer the problem it once was in elections, crippling the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and state legislators (including our three) who this past session couldn’t even pass a decent “sanctuary cities” bill without adding a toxic provision that opens up brown-skinned people in Texas to racial profiling and hinders local police chiefs from preventing it. And we cheer these “leaders” from safe conclaves where everybody looks alike and then deny complicity when the consequences explode.

Sure, the left wants to make this all about Trump, but it’s far more complicated than that. He may well be pulling the strings these days, but we the puppets created the dynamics for much of the ongoing hate and anarchy tearing our country apart.

Bill Whitaker is the Tribune-Herald opinion editor.