In the wake of the deadly violence in Charlottesville on Saturday, Donald Trump had an opportunity to condemn white supremacists and their agenda. He instead denounced hatred “on many sides.”
Those who might want to give the president the benefit of the doubt have an added challenge to contend with: the context created by recent history.
Trump, who rose to political prominence by peddling a racist conspiracy theory, was a different kind of presidential candidate in a variety of ways, but his overt use of racial politics was a radical departure from what Americans have grown accustomed to in recent years. In February 2016, for example, after Trump balked at denouncing David Duke and the KKK, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said, “We cannot be a party [that] nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.”
Rachel had an op-ed in the Washington Post the same day, asking what it said about the contemporary GOP that Trump enjoyed such enthusiastic support from white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
Republican voters, however, were unmoved. As 2016 progressed, and Trump secured his party’s nomination, the campaign became a source of inspiration for white nationalists, culminating in the KKK’s official newspaper expressing support for the Republican nominee just a week before Election Day.
Those attitudes haven’t faded.
During a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. on Saturday, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke said the event is in line with President Trump’s “promises.”
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back,” Duke said. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) explained yesterday, “These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House.”
Indeed, after the president delivered remarks that failed to denounce the bigots specifically, a neo-Nazi publication celebrated, perceiving Trump’s comments as implicit support. “No condemnation at all,” it said. “When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
To be sure, it’s tempting not to give a damn what the lunatic fringe has to say, but when white supremacists look at a sitting president as a kindred spirit, it’s all the more incumbent on the White House to do something about it.
In other words, when white supremacists see Trump as a source of inspiration, Trump’s responsibility to condemn these supporters becomes more acute.
As former Ambassador Michael McFaul put it over the weekend in a message to the president, “If white supremacists are praising your statement … maybe you should try again.”