He read from a teleprompter. Speaking from his heart would have been impossible, given his obvious lack of passion and willful blindness over the past couple of days. He did not mention the “alt-right,” nor did he announce he is firing Stephen K. Bannon, who once bragged he gave the alt-right a platform at Breitbart. He did not announce any specific policy measures. He did not apologize for his moral obtuseness. This was the weakest statement he could have gotten away with, 48 hours too late. Why did it have to come to this?
The white nationalists in Charlottesville did not hide their intentions. They were there to revel in the Trump presidency, which explicitly told them it was time to “take their country back.” Former KKK grand wizard David Duke left no confusion as to his followers’ admiration for the president:
This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We’re 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, and that’s what we’ve got to do.
His invocation of the president’s name and campaign rhetoric makes the president’s equivocation all the more appalling — and revealing. Whereas any normal president or politician would renounce support from neo-Nazis and white nationalists, Trump — until forced to do so — would not criticize them, let alone refuse to accept their support. (Contrast that to 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole’s remarks at his convention: “The Republican Party is broad and inclusive. It represents — The Republican Party is broad and inclusive. It represents many streams of opinion and many points of view. But if there’s anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the Party of Lincoln. And the exits which are clearly marked are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise.”)
Not to have rejected immediately the support or to tell the neo-Nazis they misunderstood his message shocks even the most jaded Trump critics and puts President Trump in a category of one — American politicians who gladly accept support from white nationalists, neo-Nazis and the alt-right (white nationalists with intellectual pretensions).
One might conclude from Trump’s foot-dragging and obsession with stoking racial tensions (e.g. his vote fraud commission, his crusade against legal and illegal immigrants, etc.) that, despite his apologists’ protestations, his campaign message was aimed at white resentment. Trump continues to tell those who want to “take back their country” that “their” country is being overrun by foreigners, non-Christians, non-whites. The majority of his followers had a more benign, non-racial interpretation (take the country back from liberals, elites, urbanites, etc.), but it surely hit home and brought out from the shadows Duke and his ilk.
Indeed, Trump’s constant demonization of cities as bastions of illegal immigrants, crime and blight was never aimed at minority audiences. It was a portrait that played to the worst racial and ethnic stereotypes of rural whites who are left behind in the post-industrial economy as Silicon Valley, the Acela Corridor and the Pacific Coast produce more and more of the wealth. As Will Wilkerson wrote:
He persists in his efforts to slur cities as radioactive war zones because the fact that America’s diverse big cities are thriving relative to the whiter, less populous parts of the country suggests that the liberal experiment works — that people of diverse origins and faiths prosper together in free and open societies. To advance his administration’s agenda, with its protectionism and cultural nationalism, Trump needs to spread the notion that the polyglot metropolis is a dangerous failure.
Trump’s dance with the racists is therefore inseparable from his agenda. A nativist, populist president without the support of the most extreme defenders of Christian white America would be an impossibility.
There is another more mundane explanation for Trump’s grudging, belated statement and refusal even now to reject support from white nationalists — just as he refuses to speak a critical word about Vladimir Putin. This is classic narcissistic behavior. The sole determination of whether Trump likes someone (Saudi royalty, thuggish leaders, etc.) is whether they praise him. It’s always and only about him. He has been far more antagonistic toward Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his own attorney general (or even Ken Frazier of Merck, who resigned from Trump’s manufacturing council) than he has been toward white nationalists because the former were disloyal in his mind, the only unforgivable sin in the Trump White House. And as a bonus, of course, anytime the media, liberal elites, policy experts and political insiders express outrage over his choice of soulmates, Trump is happy.
In sum, Trump’s ideology and political platform necessitate at the very least a truce (if not overt alliance) with white nationalists. Only when his presidential authority seems at risk will he relent to read someone else’s words. But let’s remember from this that he is also a patsy for those who either sincerely or manipulatively sing his praises and whose support horrifies his opponents. No wonder Putin wanted him to win — Trump is the perfect patsy for anyone seeking to undo the West’s liberal (small “l”), democratic (small “d”) tradition. And come to think of it, Trump has now condemned even the KKK but never openly criticized Putin.