Finally President Donald Trump acknowledged in a statement that “Racism is evil,” and described the “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups” as “criminals and thugs.” Put that in the “too little too late” file. It had taken two days before he could denounce the extremist bigots responsible for the deaths in Charlottesville, Virginia. Still, his immediate response was the one that matters, because it reveals what a toxic force he is.
Originally he had condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides.” On many sides? Was the current president of the United States suggesting that counterprotesters shared equal blame with the fascist terrorist who drove his car into a crowd and mowed down more than a dozen people, killing an innocent woman? Apparently he was dismayed by those who dared to resist his crowd of fellow fringe fanatics in Charlottesville.
This president seemed to be suggesting that fighting against those advocating violent racism is morally comparable to the actions of the violent racists. One can argue that physical force is misguided from either side, but the motivation is nowhere near equivalent. It’s easy to surmise that Trump doesn’t comprehend that. Or one might conclude instead that he absolutely understands that the core of his support comes from the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis and other white supremacists who have exploited white lower-middle-class angst in the United States and turned it into their irrational hatred. He can’t offend them. And obviously he didn’t. This is from “The Daily Stormer,” a nutcase fringe website, about what he said on the day of the mayhem: “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. … No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
And this tweet from David Duke, the longtime white nationalist, who criticized Trump for even calling for unity: “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror &remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.” It was advice that apparently Donald Trump didn’t need.
Remember, we’re talking about a man who can be antagonized into dangerous trash talk by a deadly punk like Kim Jong Un, or any news story that doesn’t please him. But when it comes to right-wing terror, until he’s forced to directly condemn racists, all he could work up was a mealy-mouthed statement critical of “many sides.”
Forced to because the wishy-washy comments were roundly slammed, even by fellow Republicans who normally quake in fear of him: “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.” That was a tweet from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who normally gives courtliness a bad name.
And then there was Chris Christie, who normally gives nastiness a bad name, particularly when he is Trump-groveling. Not this time: “We reject the racism and violence of white nationalists like the ones acting out in Charlottesville. Everyone in leadership must speak out.”
That presumably included the president, even though his leadership has been rejected by millions of people from the night he was elected, the ones who virulently opposed his scapegoating. Regrettably, it also inspired all the frightened Americans who voted for him. For good reasons and bad, Trump’s supporters are furious about an unfair economic system that has left them by the wayside. His candidacy and election also inspired the extremists, like the ones who are embracing the icons of the slave-holding Confederacy. The wackos wore various uniforms as they pranced around Charlottesville, spewing their bile. But one bit of apparel was widely noticeable: The red baseball hats festooned with the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again.”
They’re with him, and apparently, he’s with them.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.