WASHINGTON, August 17, 2017 — President Trump has commented three times on the events in Charlottesville last week: in press conferences on Saturday and Tuesday, and in an address on Monday. Each time he has done a remarkably poor job and has been roundly condemned for it.
In his Saturday remarks, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” In his later remarks, he reiterated the responsibility of “both sides”:
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group, you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”
He later observed,
“You have some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. … You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
Does Trump believe that the Nazi demonstrators and the counter-protestors who went to Charlottesville were moral equivalents? Does he doubt that everyone who protested to keep the Robert E. Lee statue in place was a fascist and a racist? Is President Trump a racist?
Is President Trump a racist?
The moral depravity of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan should not be in doubt. No one who goes to a rally with the intent of inflicting harm on others, or even entertains the notion, is a fine person. There are certainly fine people among those who admire Lee and among those who would like to see his statues reduced to slag; it’s unlikely that any of them attacked or killed anyone in Charlottesville last week.
Trump’s comments weren’t out of the blue. According to a New York Times report, “Members of the president’s staff, stunned and disheartened, said they never expected to hear such a voluble articulation of opinions that the president had long expressed in private.” Trump’s comments were surprising to his staff only because they made clear and public what the president had until then kept private.
Unfortunately for the sake of clarity, those staff members were only identified as “aides”; so the New York Times cannot be totally trusted on the authenticity of the comment.
It’s likely that Trump’s comments are strictly true. Some of the protestors who want to preserve the Lee statue are certainly not Nazis, and some of the counter-protestors were prepared to wield more than mere words. But that doesn’t get to the question of whether Trump is a racist.
Trump’s comments showed clearly just how divorced he is from reality. He called press conferences on Saturday and Tuesday to feature VA and infrastructure legislation. He talked about the violence because he had to. He was forced into his Monday speech by the reaction to his Saturday remarks, and he started it with a bizarre digression:
“I’m in Washington today to meet with my economic team about trade policy and major tax cuts and reform. We are renegotiating trade deals and making them good for the American worker, and it’s about time. The economy is now strong.”
With that introduction, he made clear that he’d rather talk about anything except the demonstrations, and after that, he could have condemned David Duke with unambiguous loathing and he still would have seemed weak.
Trump’s need to find the good among the demonstrators and the bad among the counter-protestors might, were he a more clever man, have come across as nuanced, but his unwillingness to condemn protesters for what many of them clearly were puts him in a bad position to mount a defense of thoughtfulness. So does his need to emphasize that he wasn’t to blame:
“It’s been going on for a long time in our country, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, it’s been going on for a long, long time.”
Members of Trump’s inner circle have mounted a spirited defense of his fair-minded views on minorities and women. He reportedly hired large numbers of female executives in his business. A Washington Post story reported that while many of his female employees found Trump boorish and sexist, they agreed that he nurtured female talent in a male-dominated industry and was ahead of his time in the way he opened career paths for them.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, denies that Trump is racist, pointing out that Trump welcomed him warmly into his family and was supportive of Ivanka’s conversion to Judaism. Trump had few black executives, but he maintained warm and close relationships with black celebrities.
To the question, “Is Trump racist?”, we might get Clintonesque: It depends on what the meaning of “racist” is. Trump shows no inclination to bash Jews, unlike the Charlottesville demonstrators. Nor is he inclined to put on sheets and march with David Duke to deny civil rights to black Americans.
But Duke and the alt-Right were delighted with Trump’s refusal to name them or denounce them in connection with the violence. He denounced the violence, but he tried mightily not to offend groups that promote violent ideologies or engage in actual violence. He called for unity without talking about responsibility.
The urge to avoid laying blame is one that needs to be cultivated more in our society, but the failure to acknowledge the role of racism and racists in the violence is as bad as refusing to acknowledge the “Islam” in “Islamic violence,” a failure Trump has condemned on many occasions. The violence didn’t just accidentally happen like unintentional rudeness. You can’t fix a problem you refuse to name.
Not everyone who demonstrated last week was a Nazi. But they marched with Nazis and didn’t drive them away, and we’re judged by the company we keep. Not everyone who wants Lee’s statue to stay hates black people and Jews, but they didn’t protest David Duke attaching himself to their party.
If you don’t harbor personal animus toward black people yet freely associate with those who do, you’re in no position to claim no sympathy with their views. You are fairly called “racist.”
President Trump is not much different from his left-wing critics in some ways. Like them, he will be your ally, regardless of your race, sex or gender, if only you agree with him. In that, he’s no more racist than your average college professor. He tolerates diversity of skin color, but not diversity of views.
Whether he’s more or less anti-semitic is hard to say. He’s refused to distance himself from anti-Semites, just as humanities faculty at Columbia and Yale refuse to do.
Trump refuses to lead, or even to stand against racists. He can’t get himself out from under the implications of that. That many of his critics are guilty of hypocrisy on this absolves him of nothing, nor do his Jewish daughter and her family. If he doesn’t want the label, let him take a serious, non-defensive stand.