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.
Because Donald Trump lacks the critical self-awareness which creates the politician’s guile, live, unscripted mediums like Tuesday’s press conference (or Twitter) are the best windows we have into what the President really believes. To his (deep breath) credit, whatever comes out of his mouth in these settings is in all likelihood a direct transcript from his brain of his thoughts at the moment of their creation.
So when Trump stood in the lobby of Trump Tower this morning to meet the press, it was unsurprising that when asked about white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, he reversed Monday’s stance and returned to his original, unscripted, “all sides” line of argument. To wit:
TRUMP: I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you had, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group – you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.REPORTER: Do you think what you call the alt left is the same as neo-Nazis?TRUMP: Those people – all of those people, excuse me – I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.REPORTER: Well, white nationalists –TRUMP: Those people were also there, because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue Robert E. Lee. So – excuse me – and you take a look at some of the groups and you see, and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not. Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
. . .
REPORTER: Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?TRUMP: I am not putting anybody on a moral plane, what I’m saying is this: you had a group on one side and a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch, but there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.REPORTER: You said there was hatred and violence on both sides?TRUMP: I do think there is blame – yes, I think there is blame on both sides. You look at, you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. And, and, and, and if you reported it accurately, you would say.REPORTER: The neo-Nazis started this thing. They showed up in Charlottesville.TRUMP: Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the President is gaslighting the American people by advancing this argument. The Unite the Right rally was not a loose gathering of like-minded regular folks who were concerned about a statue. On the contrary, the statue controversy was an excuse to rally for white supremacist issues broadly – hence the torches, the chants of “You will not replace us” and “Jew will not replace us”, and the actual Nazi flags being flown and actual Nazi slogans being chanted and actual KKK members in attendance. By minimizing Unite the Right’s intentions as being solely limited to the issue of Robert E. Lee’s statue, Donald Trump is either 1) intentionally mischaracterizing the nature of the protest to protect white supremacists or 2) legitimately believes that people who belong to such groups as The Daily Stormer, the League of the South, the Ku Klux Klan, the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, the Traditionalist Workers Party, the Oath Keepers, etc. are “fine people” worth listening to.
Either way, the President has finally revealed his racism in unprecedented, undeniable ways. Some would argue (correctly) that weaponized, activist racism was an integral part of the Trump campaign’s strategy and rhetoric, and that even as a private citizen, Donald Trump has a long history of racist behavior:
“[H]e was accused of ordering “all the black [employees] off the floor” of his Atlantic City casinos during his visits; claimed “laziness is a trait in blacks”and “not anything they can control”; requested Jews “in yarmulkes” replace his black accountants; told Bryan Gumbel that “a well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market”; demanded the death penalty for a group of black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a jogger in Central Park (and, despite their later exoneration with the use of DNA evidence, has continued to insist they are guilty); suggested a Native American tribe “don’t look like Indians to me”; mocked Chinese and Japanese trade negotiators by doing an impression of them in broken English; described undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists”; compared Syrian refugees to “snakes”; defended two supporters who assaulted a homeless Latino man as “very passionate” people “who love this country”; pledged to ban a quarter of humanity from entering the United States; proposed a database to track American Muslims that he himself refused to distinguish from the Nazi registration of German Jews; implied Jewish donors “want to control” politicians and are all sly negotiators; heaped praise on the “amazing reputation” of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has blamed America’s problems on a “Jewish mafia”; referred to a black supporter at a campaign rally as “my African-American”; suggested the grieving Muslim mother of a slain U.S. army officer “maybe … wasn’t allowed” to speak in public about her son; accused an American-born Hispanic judge of being “a Mexican”; retweeted anti-Semitic and anti-black memes, white supremacists, and even a quote from Benito Mussolini; kept a book of Hitler’s collected speeches next to his bed; declined to condemn both David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan; and spent five years leading a “birther” movement that was bent on smearing and delegitimizing the first black president of the United States, who Trump also accused of being the founder of ISIS.”
However, as repulsive as this behavior was (is), it all more or less fell within the confines of what might be called “acceptable” forms of racism – that is, behavior that could be chalked up to a loose tongue, or a rough manner, or political correctness, that falls within the scope of casual prejudices that people of color experience in every state in this country. In other words, beliefs which might have a legitimate policy rationale, or which might be distasteful, but don’t prove with one hundred percent certainty that a person harbors hate and bias toward ethnic minorities, as illustrated by the polemic but useful diagram below:
Donald Trump has now publicly, undeniably crossed the Rubicon of plausible racism deniability. He has attempted to whitewash the legacy of those who enslaved, lynched, raped, and murdered Asian and African and Latino and Native Americans for hundreds of years in the name of racial hegemony, and coddled their ideological progeny with the power of legitimacy his office confers. This is a watershed moment of truth, akin to the NRA’s meek silence on the police shooting of Philando Castile, that reveals the heart of a movement. Regardless of what scraps of histori-political philosophy rattle around in the rusted carnival hall of mirrors that is this President’s brain, we know where he stands now. As a pundit recently put it, “it is so fucking easy to denounce Nazis.” The fact that this President has had such a hard time doing so shows us exactly who he stands with.