UPDATE at 12:50 p.m.: In brief comments Monday, reading from a script, Trump finally did condemn, by name, Nazis and white supremacists. His remarks lacked the Trumpian flair, and they also lacked a repudiation of support from racists who have pledged their support to him. But he did dutifully recite the words that he was given to say.
That’s important, even if it wasn’t heartfelt. It’s important because with that statement, the bully Trump caved to public shaming and his worst supporters witnessed him doing it, on a cause they care about. As long as he got away with it, as long as he successfully flouted standards of decency and acceptable public discourse, particularly on matters of race, they had cause to think that they could get away with it too.
Well, they can’t. The battle is far from won, but this was a potential turning point.
It may have dawned upon you by now that Donald Trump is not a shy man.
When he dislikes something, when someone has done something to earn his disfavor, he has no problem emphatically expressing those emotions in the strongest, most explicit terms possible. On Monday morning, for example, Merck CEO Ken Frazier announced that he had resigned from Trump’s manufacturing council in protest of the president’s hands-off approach to the Charlottesville violence.
Within minutes, Trump personally fired off a blistering attack.
At times, though, when he is forced to say things that he really, truly doesn’t want to say, we’ve seen another side of Trump. In those moments he is oddly subdued, barely concealing his resentment, speaking in a monotone. The seeming sincerity that he oozes on other occasions disappears. We saw that Trump in the campaign, when he was finally forced to admit that the racist birther campaign that he had fed and fostered for five years was in fact groundless. The words almost had to be dragged from his mouth.
“President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” he said, a total of 10 short words after five years of lies and attacks. “Now, we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”
And as president, when asked for a yes or no answer — did Russia interfere on his behalf in the campaign? — the man who sees everything in stark terms of black and white retreated into doubt and uncertainty.
“I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people in other countries. Could have been a lot of people interfered,” he said. “I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries. I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
That was also the Trump we saw Saturday, when forced by events and by his own staff to issue a statement about the horrendous events that had taken place in Charlottesville.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides … on many sides,” he said, stressing that phrase about “many sides.” Despite pleas from some on his staff, he made no mention of white nationalism, white supremacy or those who had paraded around with Nazi flags, chanting Nazi symbols.
As I noted over the weekend, when one of the parties involved in a dispute are neo-Nazis and white supremacists, there are not “many sides.” There are two sides, the right side and the wrong side. That’s particularly true when only one side, the side of the racists and Nazis, launch a murderous domestic terror attack.
Yet on Saturday, through Sunday, Trump could not bring himself to say that.
That reluctance was especially noteworthy given the inspiration that the so-called “white nationalists” claim to have taken from Trump’s rise to the presidency. Some at the torch-lit parade and rally wore MAGA hats. Others spoke openly of their support and affection for Trump. Nazi leader David Duke lauded the gathering of white supremacists and Nazis as a significant step “to fulfill the promises of Trump.” The man suspected of driving a car into a crowd and murdering Heather Heyer had posted Trump logos alongside Nazi symbols on his Facebook page. The man’s mother told the press that she thought that her son had gone to Virginia to attend a Trump rally.
Now, it is absolutely fair to argue that the affection and support might not necessarily flow both ways, and to suggest that Trump might indeed share the revulsion felt by many Americans to such a cause. If that’s the case, it should be easy to say so. A man as famously blunt as Trump should be famously blunt in saying so.
I don’t know about you, but if my own words and actions were somehow being cited as inspiration by Nazis and white supremacists, I would be horrified. I would do anything in my power to publicly separate myself from those causes, and I’d say it to every microphone and TV camera I could find. I’m sure that most decent Americans, put in that situation, would rush to do the same.
Earlier this summer, for example, a Bernie Sanders supporter attacked Republican congressmen at a baseball practice. A horrified Sanders immediately took to the floor of the Senate to issue a heartfelt condemnation, and to make it clear that nobody who resorted to violence had any place in his cause.
“I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice this morning is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign,” Sanders said. “I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.”
And as a reminder of the high stakes in this discussion, here’s a screengrab from a conversation Sunday at Breitbart, the alt-right website run by Steve Bannon before he was brought into the White House as senior advisor to Trump. I republish it here not because it is so unusual or startling, but because it is neither:
These are the forces that have taken solace from the rise of Trumpism, that see his success as their success, who see him as their leader as they attempt to “take the country back.” This is the product of decades of romanticizing and justifying violence as a legitimate political response through talk of “Second Amendment solutions.” In a nation where white men overwhelmingly dominate in business, government and earning power, this is what happens when less successful white men are told that they are the victims of a conspiracy and repression, and when it is suggested that they have the right to respond with armed violence.
This is the nonsense that a responsible leader would attempt to quash.