If former vice president Joe Biden’s goal with the video launching his presidential campaign was to knock President Trump off his message, it worked — to a degree.
The centerpiece of the video is the events that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017. Days of tension and hours of violence erupted as a heavily white-nationalist and neo-Nazi crowd held a rally to defend a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A young woman counterprotesting those groups was struck and killed by a car driven by an avowed neo-Nazi.
Biden’s video focuses on Trump’s response to that tragedy. Trump supporters were quick to claim that Biden’s presentation of what Trump said was unfair, but as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake explained, it isn’t.
On Friday morning, while on his way to Indianapolis for an event associated with the National Rifle Association, Trump addressed it again. He was asked whether he still thought there were “very fine people on both sides,” as he said at the time.
“Oh, I’ve answered that question,” Trump replied. “And if you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly. I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals.”
Trump claimed that he had spoken with many generals at the White House who said that Lee was perhaps their favorite general.
This is a bit surprising, because Lee’s most notable service was as a military enemy of the United States. When his home state of Virginia seceded from the United States, Lee went into service on behalf of the new Confederate States of America.
Few people are as directly responsible for as many American deaths as Lee. An estimated 110,000 U.S. troops were killed in action during the war, with the total death toll (including deaths in prison camps and from disease) estimated at 360,000, including more than 50,000 from Trump’s home state of New York.
Every time Lee won a battle, Americans died. He was a traitor, in the most direct sense of the word.
For Trump, though, Lee is a useful symbol. Trump’s embrace of the general means taking a stand in a cultural fight over the legacy of the Confederacy and the self-image of Southern states. Closer to the fringes, Trump’s repeated return to the subject sends a message about the acceptability of racially questionable views and white pride. There’s some precedent for this. Schools were named after Lee and other Confederate generals not at the end of the Civil War but largely during the civil rights era as a way of expressing opposition to school integration and expanded rights for black Americans.
Reducing a rally with prominent, proud swastikas to a defense of U.S. history is a way of glossing over those swastikas, as effectively as claiming that the group included some “very fine people.” Trump does it because he recognizes that some of those in his base support the goal of the rally.
After making his comment about Lee, Trump flew to Indiana and began speaking to the NRA crowd. He again raised the subject of attempts to overthrow the government — but this time, the government was his own.
“We are taking power out of Washington, D.C., and returning it to the American people, where it belongs,” Trump said. Coincidentally, this argument for giving federal power to the states was itself a feature of both the tension that led to the Civil War and of opposition to the civil rights movement.
Trump then referred to the FBI’s investigation into whether his campaign had coordinated with Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election. Since Trump took office, a number of senior FBI officials involved in that probe have been fired or have resigned.
“And you see it now better than ever, with all of the resignations of bad apples — they’re bad apples! They tried for a coup. Didn’t work out so well. And I didn’t need a gun for that one, did I?” he said. “All was taking place at the highest levels in Washington, D.C. You’ve been watching, you’ve been seeing, you’ve been looking at things that you wouldn’t have believed possible in our country. Corruption at the highest level. A disgrace. Spying. Surveillance. Trying for an overthrow. And we caught 'em. We caught 'em.”
In recent weeks, largely since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III concluded his investigation into possible coordination, Trump has increasingly referred to the genesis of the investigation as a “coup” or as “treason.” He did so in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Thursday night. The argument flows from a loosely constructed alternative theory of how the investigation began that’s popular in conservative media. In it, anti-Trump FBI employees began investigating his campaign solely to undercut his chance of winning the race or, after he did win, to undermine his presidency.
This line of argument is flawed in a wide variety of ways, but for Trump, it’s advantageous: Not only did the investigation exonerate him (which it didn’t entirely), but also, he claims, the real crimes were committed by the investigators. Those FBI agents who started a probe after being tipped off by a foreign diplomat that a Trump campaign adviser had been given a heads-up on material stolen by Russia? They were traitors who wanted to overthrow the government.
In the case of Lee, it’s politically useful to fend off revisionist efforts to point out that the Confederate general was a Confederate general and a slave owner. In the case of the FBI, it’s politically useful to suggest that those who were trying to determine the extent to which members of his campaign may have been working with a hostile foreign power were themselves traitors to the United States.
Trump embraced a traitor who fought the U.S. government and equated members of the U.S. government with traitors.