Days after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville left one anti-racist protester dead, President Trump made a now- infamous comment about the tragedy.
“You had some very bad people in that group,” he said, seemingly referring to the white nationalists who chanted, among other things, “Jews will not replace us.” “But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
That comment was met with near-unanimous condemnation at the time, and it continues to be referenced by the president’s critics. Most recently, former vice president Joe Biden cited Trump’s comments in his campaign launch video as evidence the president was unfit for office.
“That’s when we heard the words from the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides?” Biden said. “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
In response Friday, Trump made the case that Biden — and the media — misinterpreted what he said.
Asked if he still thinks there were “very fine people” among the white nationalists in Charlottesville, Trump replied: “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. … People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.”
The president seems to be arguing that there was nothing wrong with what he said in 2017, it was all a misunderstanding. But defending Lee and calling him a “great general” has its own racial issues.
The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald wrote last year:
Though Lee remains an important, powerful symbol in the South, his reputation among scholars has evolved to the point that many either question or outright ridicule his stature as a battlefield savant.
To Edward Bonekemper III, the author of “How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War” and several other books on the war, Lee is not the humble, proud battlefield loser presented by documentarian Ken Burns and other popular works of history, but a bumbling strategist and the central character in “the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.
As head of the Confederate Army, Lee has become “a symbol of racism and America’s slaveholding history.”
Lee was himself a slave owner, and he married into one of the wealthiest slaveholding families in Virginia. According to the Associated Press, “documents show Lee was cruel to his slaves and encouraged his overseers to severely beat slaves captured after trying to escape. Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor said in a 2008 American Heritage article that Lee was angry about the slaves’ demands for freedom and ‘resorted to increasingly harsh measures to maintain control,’ breaking up most slave families.”
One slave described him as “the worst man I ever see.”
Trump’s defense of the general confirms some of the worst perceptions about the president’s views on race. Trump seems to think defending Lee changes the conversation about his “both sides” comment. But without acknowledging the immediate and long-term harm of his worldview, Trump is just defending a different kind of white nationalist.