In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville which left 19 wounded and 1 dead, condemnation of the attack was swift and bipartisan. Democratic and Republican politicians alike spoke with precision and force to reaffirm that white supremacy is evil, and its violence in action and ideology is intolerable in 21st century America. Partisans as disparate as Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren were seemingly on the same page – indeed, Cruz, more often seen playing the “settle down you overemotional lefties” card, was perhaps the most forceful of any politician in condemning the attack, not only identifying white supremacy by name, but also labeling the attack an act of domestic terrorism and demanding a federal investigation.
Under such circumstances, when people who can’t seem to work together or agree on hardly anything share a common message, one wonders who would bother to disagree. After all, we’re talking about actual latter-day KKK and Neo-Nazi acolytes. Surely, only 72 years after V-E day and amid a resurgence in American white nationalism, our politicians could agree that the tenets of National Socialism and White Supremacy are a Very Bad Thing. At a bare minimum, you’d think they’d be PR-savvy enough to publicly denounce such things, even if they rode into office on their coattails.
Yet, for thirty-six hours, President Trump could bring himself to do no such thing. His initial statement placed blame for violence on “many sides”, seemed to draw a moral equivalence between the “Unite the Right” crowd and its counter-protestors, and failed to mention the car attack on protesters at all. Unsurprisingly, this sort of lukewarm false equivalence drew outrage from basically everyone without a Stormfront account. Thus, on Monday morning, after intense pressure from the public, Democrats, fellow Republicans such as Cory Gardner and Marco Rubio, as well as most of his own staff, Trump capitulated, saying in brief, scripted, unscheduled remarks before the press that “[the] KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans” and that those who use violence in the name of bigotry “strike at the core of America.” Too little, too late, perhaps, but the President’s capitulation to common sense norms of decency earned praise on both sides of the aisle.
I’d argue that the second statement didn’t seem to be very deeply felt. We know how Donald Trump speaks when he truly believes monsters are afoot – he goes on extended anecdotes about their brutality and exhorts his crowds to near-vigilantism. We didn’t see that in the President’s Monday statement – what we saw was the dead-eyed, glaring resentment of the President being forced to read something against his will. Indeed, Politico reported that while advisers had initially prepared a statement explicitly condemning white supremacists, Trump made the decision to demur from those remarks in public. However, at least in form, the President finally made good on his responsibility as an American leader to denounce fascists.
Unfortunately, a day later, the President held another press conference and blew that facade of respectability into outer space.