The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why is Trump reluctant to condemn white supremacy? It’s his racism — and his megalomania.

Republican and Democratic politicians criticized President Trump for not calling out white supremacy while administration officials defended his statement. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)


On Monday, President Trump will again address the deadly violence sparked by a rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, a White House aide tells CNN. It remains an open question whether he will denounce white supremacy by name, which he failed to do in his original comments on Saturday, or whether he will label the killing of a young woman protesting the rallies as domestic terrorism.

Even if Trump says the right thing today, the question will linger: Why does Trump resist condemning white supremacy? The most obvious answer is that he’s encouraging the racism of some of his supporters, after a campaign that derived initial energy from his racist birther conspiracy theories and in many ways was framed around the narrative that white identity and white America are under siege. White nationalism is now alive and well in the White House; we are reaping the inevitable consequences.

I’d like to suggest an additional reason for Trump’s reticence that is intertwined with this one: Trump does not recognize that his service as president confers on him any obligations to the public of any kind. This does not supplant Trump’s racism as an explanation. It throws its potential effects going forward into even sharper, more alarming relief.

On Saturday, Trump condemned what he called an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” but did not explicitly blame white supremacy or continuing racism toward African Americans for it. This sparked a ferocious backlash, including from some Republicans, and the White House and Vice President Pence have since put out statements calling out white supremacy. Trump has yet to take this simple step.

Trump’s resistance appears rooted in part in an instinctual sense that so doing would constitute some form of capitulation. In his remarks, Trump repeated the phrase “on many sides” in a pointed tone, as if to signal that he will not be bullied by any objection to his false equivalence or any pressure to single out anti-black racism.

The New York Times reports that a wide range of Trump’s advisers privately urged him to call out the white nationalists directly, but he kept steering the conversation back to a breakdown of “law and order.” We’ve seen this refusal to give in to pressure to condemn racism before. Trump dragged his feet before disavowing David Duke’s support. And Joshua Green’s new book on Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon reports that in August 2016, as Hillary Clinton elevated the issue of white nationalism to national prominence with a major speech, the Trump campaign internally decided not to go too far in renouncing it. Bannon told Green: “We polled the race stuff and it didn’t matter.”

The message that Trump surely received — one he surely continues to believe — is that there is no reason for him to capitulate to politically correct demands that he explicitly condemn racism toward any minorities. But this raises a profound problem. It is likely that Trump views this whole affair as being all about him — that is, as all about whether he will surrender to his foes. He seems incapable of grasping that amid such crises, his office carries with it certain very grave responsibilities to the American people.

Why we want presidents to condemn racism

There is a reason we generally want our presidents to speak out against racism against African Americans amid outbreaks of racial strife and violence. They are well positioned to remind the nation of our founding creed, and of our most conspicuous betrayal of it — of the historically unique experience of African Americans as targets of centuries of violent subjugation, as well as sustained domestic terrorism and deeply ingrained racism, which continues today.

We need our presidents to say “that racism is a deeply entrenched feature of American society that must be combated at every level,” Eric Foner, the renowned historian of Reconstruction and the African American struggle for freedom and equality, told me. “Racism is the deepest inequality we face. There are many people who face problems in our society, unfortunately, but racism is the deepest one, and we have to confront and understand it.”

Foner cited previous instances of presidents stepping forward at fraught moments, pointing to John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 speech in which he embraced the civil rights movement, which had been putting immense pressure on our country’s leadership amid the Birmingham protests. “Kennedy, like Trump, had a significant base among white segregationists in the South,” Foner said. “Yet he went on television and said that this is a moral crisis for the nation and we need to face up to it.” Foner pointed out that John McCain, while running for president in 2008, had showed similar leadership when he famously condemned racist attacks on rival Barack Obama.

“The president is supposed to be, and sometimes is, a kind of spokesman for the nation,” Foner continued. “Trump has repudiated that role from the beginning. His inaugural address was completely focused on his voters. It made no effort to appeal to anybody who hadn’t already voted for him.”

As Jeffrey Goldberg points out, moments such as this outbreak of “radical white terrorism” are precisely when we need our elected officials to speak out, forthrightly and with no equivocation. But the rub here is that Trump clearly recognizes no obligation to the broader public of any kind as a function of the office entrusted to him. This isn’t just racism. It’s also his megalomaniacal inability to envision that his role might require duties above and beyond his desire to deepen his bond with certain supporters (which of course is all about him) or the fact that he doesn’t want to be seen surrendering in some vague sense.

And this could have continuing consequences.  The Times reports that white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups are only emboldened by the weekend’s events and predict that their movement is growing — which means we may see more of this going forward. Brian Beutler argues that Trump’s refusal to call them out by name may well reflect an active desire to empower these groups and, more broadly, to realize their vision. At a minimum, Trump is tacitly empowering them to keep it up — with untold costs to the country that could worsen, perhaps substantially.

In this sense, there is a direct line that leads from this abdication to Trump’s serial degradation of the presidency and our institutions on many other fronts: the continuing refusal to release his tax returns and use of the presidency to enrich his family; the nonstop lies about illegal voting in 2016, which undermine faith in our democratic system solely to aggrandize him; the blithe admission that he fired his FBI director because of the Russia probe; the rage at his attorney general for failing to protect him from that investigation; and the constant claims that the Russia story is a hoax, even though it’s about actual sabotage of our democracy, in addition to his role in it. Even if Trump does say the right thing today, it will only come after intense pressure to do so — and will be born of an instinct toward self-preservation — because he has zero sense of any obligation to the public, of any kind.

* TRUMP SABOTAGE OF OBAMACARE CONTINUES APACE: The New York Times reports that officials have extended the deadline for insurers to set 2018 rates, precisely because of uncertainty caused by Trump’s threat to cut off cost-sharing reductions:

It was the clearest evidence to date that the politics of health care in Washington could disrupt planning for 2018. Insurers are struggling to decide whether to participate in the marketplace next year and, if so, how much to charge. In addition to the usual price increases to keep up with medical inflation, many insurers are demanding higher rates because of the possibility that President Trump might take away the subsidies known as cost-sharing reduction payments [CSRs].

To reiterate, Trump is threatening to cut off the CSRs to somehow force Dems to the table to deal, even though he doesn’t have the foggiest idea what he hopes to accomplish that way.

* ADVISERS WILL HAVE TO DISSUADE TRUMP FROM PREEMPTIVE STRIKE: This is a striking nugget buried in the Wall Street Journal’s overview of the latest maneuvering on North Korea:

Dissuading Mr. Trump from a certain course of action typically requires advisers to make the argument repeatedly, officials have said. Military advisers who don’t support a preemptive strike believe they will have to keep the president convinced that the U.S. would be unwise to take that approach, according to people in Washington familiar with the matter.

Well, we’ve been warned.

* TRUMP AIDES PREDICT ‘BRUTAL’ SEPTEMBER: Politico reports that Trump advisers are gearing up for “brutal” battles over raising the debt ceiling, funding the government, tax reform and infrastructure:

Pressure is likely to rise from the conservative House Freedom Caucus for spending cuts for a budget and the debt ceiling, creating another clash with moderates like the one that tanked health care reform. Trump, aides said, is determined to get money for the wall and immigration measures — and he is likely to balk at any plan that doesn’t give him a win on a signature campaign issue.

Which means default on the debt ceiling and financial calamity are very possible. So is a government shutdown over Trump’s desire to fund his fantasy wall. So much winning!

* CONGRESS SHOULD CONDEMN TRUMP: In a very good column on the deeper meaning of Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy, E.J. Dionne Jr. suggests:

The proper response is for Democrats and Republicans willing to take a stand to force a vote in Congress condemning the president … and making clear where the vast majority of Americans stand on white supremacy. This is important … to send a message to America’s minorities that whites are willing to do more than offer rote condemnations of racism … the fact that our president has consistently and successfully exploited white racial resentment cannot help but be taken by citizens of color as a sign of racism’s stubborn durability.

A number of congressional Republicans have done the right thing and vocally condemned Trump. But more is called for.

* TRUMP IS DEEPLY ALIENATED FROM THE AMERICAN IDEA: Paul Krugman ties Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists to his reaction to Russian sabotage of our election:

In fact, he’s so deeply alienated from the American idea that he can’t even bring himself to fake it. We all know that Trump feels comfortable with white supremacists, but it’s amazing that he won’t even give them a light tap on the wrist. We all know that Putin is Trump’s kind of guy, but it’s remarkable that Trump won’t even pretend to be outraged at Putin’s meddling with our election.

Indeed, Trump often dismisses efforts to get to the bottom of that meddling — separate from whether collusion occurred — as nothing but a hoax, because he believes they reflect poorly on him.

* AND BANNON-McMASTER FEUD SET TO GET A LOT UGLIER: Axios reports that “outside forces” allied against national security adviser H.R. McMaster will intensify their attacks, but that could end up hurting McMaster rival Stephen K. Bannon:

Outside forces opposed to McMaster are going to allege he has a drinking problem, according to sources  … For the nationalists making them, these attacks could backfire. Most top White House officials find the attacks loathsome, and blame Steve Bannon for them. So instead of hurting McMaster, they may damage Bannon … It’s unclear how long Bannon and McMaster, who are ideological foes, can both work in the same White House.

It would be so tragic if this Breitbart-fueled campaign against McMaster ended up taking down Bannon instead.