Does it really matter that Donald Trump wouldn’t specifically condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists whose rally on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent and led to the death of a woman when a driver rammed his car into a crowd? After all, presidents aren’t required to condemn every violent crime or act of savagery that occurs on US soil. Trump did say (via Twitter) that Americans “condemn all that hate stands for” and he did declare at an appearance in New Jersey that he “condemn[s] in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence, on many sides.” Isn’t that sufficient?
No, it isn’t.
And you don’t have to be a liberal or a Democrat or a Never Trumper to say so.
Trump loyalists will insist that the clamor over his vague rebuke to the lethal violence in Charlottesville is nothing more than the latest example of hostility to a president the left despises. Here’s why they’re wrong.
To begin with, slamming a car into a throng of civilians is terrorism and Trump has insisted repeatedly that terrorists must be called out and condemned by name.
“Anyone who cannot name our enemy,” Trump proclaimed in 2016, “is not fit to lead this country.” That, at any rate, is what he said about terrorism committed in the name of Islam. As a candidate for president, he often assailed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their unwillingness to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” He himself pointedly uttered the phrase over and over, including in his speech accepting the Republican nomination, in his inaugural address, and when he spoke to a joint session of Congress.
If a radical Islamist had plowed a vehicle into a crowd of Americans on Saturday, killing one and injuring 19, can anyone doubt that the president would have denounced the murderer with outraged particularity? Yet when murder and mayhem were provoked by the thuggish racists and anti-Semites of the alt-right fringe — a movement, it should be underscored, whose adherents are as hostile to American pluralism, democracy, and constitutional values as the jihadists — Trump suddenly became too even-handed and cautious to condemn the racists as racists. Instead he offered empty bromides: “We want to get this situation straightened out in Charlottesville and we want to study it; we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country, where things like this can happen.”
Note well: That wasn’t how the vast majority of mainstream Republicans and traditional conservatives reacted. If Trump was looking for an appropriate response to Saturday’s bloodshed, he could have followed the lead of Ted Cruz:
The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.
Or of Marco Rubio:
Nothing patriotic about #Nazis, the #KKK or #WhiteSupremacists. It's the direct opposite of what #America seeks to be.
Or of John McCain:
Our Founders fought a revolution for the idea that all men are created equal. The heirs of that revolution fought a Civil War to save our nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to that revolutionary proposition.
“Nothing less is at stake on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, where a violent attack has taken at least one American life and injured many others in a confrontation between our better angels and our worst demons.
“White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people.
Or of Orrin Hatch:
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.
Or of the renowned Southern Baptist pastor Russell Moore:
I am grieved to the core to think that this is the United States of America I am watching on live television right now. . . The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so.
But really: When has Trump ever needed coaching in denunciation? He is the most compulsive denouncer, condemner, and berater in the history of US presidential politics. From Mika Brzezinski to Judge Gonzalo Curiel, from Obamacare to CNN, from the mayor of New York to the Speaker of the House, from NATO to the Wall Street Journal, Trump has publicly slammed hundreds of targets, often in the most pointed and demeaning terms. The New York Times keeps a running tally of all the slurs and smears Trump has fired on Twitter alone: At last count, the total was up to 351.
But he will not criticize neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan agitators, and alt-right racists. (Nor will he criticize Vladimir Putin; that’s a topic for another day.) Had Trump directed at the Charlottesville goons even one-tenth of the contempt he has spewed at Rosie O’Donnell , he could have avoided much of this weekend’s controversy. He wouldn’t do it. Much of the country was dismayed by his reticence, but the white supremacists cheered him for it. Here’s a post from the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, liveblogging the day’s events:
Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.
He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides!
So he implied the antifa are haters.
There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.
He said he loves us all.
Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him.
No condemnation at all.
When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.
Really, really good.
God bless him.
If the Daily Stormer is blessing you, you’re doing something very wrong.
As I write this morning, a chyron at the bottom of the TV screen says: "President expected to speak again on Charlottesville." Perhaps Trump is finally prepared to offer a substantive repudiation of the alt-right cretins, with their flaming torches, their stiff-arm Hitler salutes, and their Aryan-style chants of “Blood and soil! Blood and soil!” But it wouldn’t shock me to see him double down. In February 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper tried without success to drag out of Trump an unequivocal condemnation of David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who had endorsed Trump’s candidacy. Trump dug in his heels, insisting he didn’t know anything about Duke — a ludicrous, pants-on-fire falsehood.
Is Trump actually sympathetic to the hatred of the alt-right fringe? For all the ugly things that have come out of the man’s mouth, it is hard to believe — well, hard for me to believe — that he genuinely sympathizes with fanatics who want America to be cleansed of Jews and of “race-mixing,” and who want the government to preserve and promote “white civilization.” Yet throughout his campaign, Trump winked at and played footsie with these vermin. He would not turn against them then; he won’t do it now.
The feeling is mutual. “We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” an exultant Duke told an interviewer during the Charlottesville rally. “We voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back, and that's what we’ve got to do.”
None of this is to deny that there is violence on the extreme left. About that, at least, Trump is right. Just weeks ago, a fervid Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire on congressional Republicans practicing for a baseball game; he severely wounded a member of Congress and sent two Capitol police officers to the hospital. Republican officeholders have received chilling murder threats, the conservative Family Research Council in Washington was targeted by a gunman in 2015, and radicals have ambushed and killed police officers. The so-called “antifa” movement openly endorses violence, and came to Charlottesville looking for a fight.
Is it necessary to forthrightly condemn left-wing violence and punish its fomenters? Absolutely. But it is much more important at this moment for Trump to personally break with the right-wing fringe and to decry its ugliness without hesitation or euphemism. Of course violent thuggery on both fringes is intolerable. So why focus on the alt-right? Because that’s the side that claims to act in the president’s cause. Trump and his allies didn’t spend the past two years playing nudge-nudge, wink-wink with progressive bigots and haters. Antifa zealots didn’t engage in menacing online intimidation and harassment of Trump’s critics. The president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, never boasted that his website was the platform for the alt-left.
The white-supremacist scum that spilled blood and broke bones in Charlottesville are in Trump’s camp. That’s why his refusal to excommunicate them is inexcusable.
“America is at a dangerous crossroads,” wrote David French for National Review, a leading conservative flagship, on Saturday night.
There is a bloodlust at the political extremes. Now is the time for moral clarity, specific condemnations of vile American movements – no matter how many MAGA hats its members wear – and for actions that back up those appropriately strong words.
As things stand today, we face a darkening political future, potentially greater loss of life, and a degree of polarization that makes 2016 look like a time of national unity. Presidents aren’t all-powerful, but they can either help or hurt. Today, Trump’s words hurt the nation he leads.