It was obvious that Donald Trump had been forced into making a second statement on Monday regarding Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville. The New York Times, among others, reported that Trump was pressured to change course from his initial claim that “many sides” brought hatred to Charlottesville—phrasing that absolved the white supremacist protesters of their alleged role in the violence that culminated in the killing of Heather Heyer. According to the Times, those comments “spurred several of his top advisers, including his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to press the president to issue a more forceful rebuke.”
After Trump’s Tuesday press conference, it’s clear that reporting was unnecessary. Trump couldn’t, or wouldn’t, let sleeping dogs lie. The press conference was pegged ostensibly to infrastructure. What we saw instead was a defense, from the president of the United States, of the Nazis and white supremacists who terrorized an American city with violence and mayhem.
The unspooling of the president’s true thoughts began after a reporter asked Trump about his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon. Not for the first time, Trump called Bannon, who had made Breitbart a home for the alt-right, a “good person” and “not a racist.” He was then asked if he thought the alt-right was responsible for the events in Charlottesville. It’s here that Trump took a turn toward the unthinkable. “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he asked, referring to the counter-demonstrators.
It’s clear from all accounts of the violence in Virginia that the “Unite the Right” demonstrators came heavily armed and prepared for conflict, chanting racist slogans and antagonizing counterprotesters. For Trump, however, the opposite was true. It was counterprotesters who came charging with “clubs,” attacking the white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And indeed, said Trump, not all of the rally attendants were “bad people.” “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides,” said the president. “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.” He continued: “You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.” Trump even characterized Friday night’s protest as “quiet,” despite visual evidence that those torch-bearing demonstrators surrounded counterprotesters (many of them students), and attacked them.
Yes, Trump condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis throughout the press conference. But it was thin gruel amid a tirade where he falsely characterized the “Unite the Right” protests and drew a broad equivalence between Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—whose statues mark the parks in Charlottesville where the event was held—and figures like George Washington, a rhetorical move common among defenders of the Confederate States of America. “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?”
But it’s not just his Tuesday remarks that make clear how little interest Trump has in repudiating the actions of white supremacists. When it comes to groups protesting police violence against black Americans, President Trump has always been quick to condemn them for disorder or property damage. When it comes to acts of terror, he is quick to make judgments about the perpetrators, often immediately pinning blame on Muslims before any investigation has occurred. But here, when we know who protested in Charlottesville and who brought violence and mayhem, Trump is reticent to cast any direct blame.
Comparing Robert E. Lee to George Washington also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues at stake. The reason to remove statues of Confederate generals like Lee and Jackson isn’t to erase unpleasant history, which is what he argues when he says Washington was “a major slave owner.” Those statues weren’t placed as historical markers. The vast majority were erected decades after the end of the Civil War, built to valorize the Confederacy and mark the establishment of Jim Crow. It’s no accident they were placed in parks and other prominent spaces near courthouses and seats of government. They marked and memorialized white supremacy, and served as a warning to anyone—black or white—who would challenge it. Confederate “heroes” like Robert E. Lee hold no historical significance outside the Confederacy and the myth of the “Lost Cause.” To erect monuments in their honor is to celebrate both.
It should also be said that there is no equivalence between those who march for white denomination and ethnic cleansing and those who march against them. To suggest otherwise isn’t just wrong; it’s obscene—a failure of morality and decency. And Trump isn’t alone in that failure. Turn to the Wall Street Journal and you’ll find the editorial board equating white racists to advocates for racial justice and transgender rights. Turn to the New York Times opinion section and you’ll find the same. At the American Conservative, a similar sleight of hand tries to argue that liberal “identity politics” is responsible for white nationalism, and that minority Americans’ asserting of their humanity is the reason some people turn to white supremacy, as if otherwise it wouldn’t exist.
Here, in the false equivalence between racists and their opponents, Donald Trump isn’t an innovator. He isn’t the first to play this game. He’s just taken old arguments and stripped them of pretense, providing them uncut and undiluted. The difference is that he is delivering them with the authority of the presidency.
There’s no doubt that Trump’s statements will provoke withering condemnation from his fellow Republicans. It’s already started. But at this stage it rings false. Donald Trump ran a campaign of racial demagoguery where he winked at Klansmen and brought white nationalists onto his team. Republicans might sound shocked, but nothing since Saturday—not his “many sides” condemnation, not his silence in the face of criticism, not his grudging correction and then angry repudiation of that same correction—should shock them. This is who he is. And words of anger or disappointment are no longer enough. If Republicans don’t break ties with the president, they are allies to a man who defends white supremacists and condemns those who stand against them.