The things Donald Trump says are like shiny, terrible objects, alluring in their horror.
His proclamations are driven by impotent, unearned swagger. His outbursts are full of impish defiance that makes for compelling entertainment to those who regard our politics as spectacle. Bombastic moments like his combative defense Tuesday of the white supremacist demonstration and subsequent terrorism in Charlottesville, Virginia, are at once revealing and concealing about the truly nefarious work of his presidency.
What was crystal clear from Trump’s presser at his New York tower was that he thought Monday’s statement was enough. Having finally given the most boilerplate of condemnations to the racists who staged a torch rally last Friday and instigated a violent riot on Saturday that ended with a counter-protester murdered, the president showed his annoyance when the assembled press pressed him to go beyond “racism is evil.”
So Trump reverted to form, ripping the “fake news” and again blaming “both sides” of the Charlottesville confrontation, emphasizing the supposedly violent impulses of the “alt-left,” whatever that is. He also tried to validate the racists for “protesting” the impending removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, arguing that by taking down Confederate memorials, “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
He went to say that most of the people there for the white supremacist rally weren’t white supremacists, just statue enthusiasts: “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
“OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
He added a strange hypothetical: “This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It’s not clear what will stop Trump, and I don’t expect him to suffer any real consequences from his fellow Republicans. There will be another series of statements strenuously objecting, followed by even more inaction. Perhaps a few of them will say that they’ll pray for him, as they do after most calamities. But they’ll stand by as his argument rings like music in the ears of white supremacists like former Klan leader David Duke, who tweeted, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville.” Trump just gave comfort to the enemy, in a literal sense.
On Monday, as Trump was placating pundits with his temporarily humane remarks about the Charlottesville chaos, Foreign Policy reported that both the FBI and Homeland Security issued a fresh warning about the emergence of white supremacist groups, the kind of warning Republicans were loath to hear from the Obama administration in the past. In a May 10 report, both federal agencies wrote that these racist groups were the most prolific domestic terrorists since the year 2000—49 homicides in 26 attacks, per the report. It also indicated that “lone actors and small cells within the white supremacist movement likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.”
Trump’s inaction is more insidious. During his 2016 campaign, the president openly embraced white nationalism to get out the vote, never minding the monsters he was encouraging to become more public. Since he has been in office, his administration has taken concrete steps to not only further the policy goals of white supremacists, but to give them more leeway to spread their violence. In February, he proposed refocusing an anti-terrorism task force, Countering Violent Extremism, to focus solely on Islamists. Homeland Security also halted a $400,000 grant for Life After Hate, a group dedicated to de-radicalizing neo-Nazis. Weeks before the Charlottesville demonstrations and Heather Heyer’s murder, the grant was formally revoked—thanks in no small part to Katherine Gorka, a national security analyst married to Sebastian Gorka, the ex-Breitbart editor and current Trump White House official tied to a Nazi-linked group in his native Hungary.
Former Breitbart editor in chief Stephen Bannon is still Trump’s chief strategist. Stephen Miller, a former associate of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, is now being discussed as a possible candidate for White House communications director.
However scattershot his White House has been to this point, though, Trump is remarkably constant in at least two respects: his lack of respect for the rule of law, and his willingness to scapegoat people of color for political gain. Whereas his lack of experience in government has proven to be a problem, his long history of racial provocation and his consistent belief in selective application of constitutional freedoms have been part of what’s kept his political support from entirely collapsing.
Trump’s policy aims, to the extent he has them, is a combination of initiatives that make rich men richer, along with enough candy for the bigots who proved so essential to his political coalition. At his press conference, as he was bombarded with questions about his equation of other protesters with literal Nazis, he insisted that growing the economy was the best path to racial harmony. But violence is one of the main dialects of white supremacists; in a world in which their cause is becoming ever more futile, they communicate their objectives through intimidation and weapons of all kinds. Now, they’ve murdered someone with a car. Yet this president feeds the tide of white extremism for his own political benefit.
Whether it’s backing voter purges, encouraging more police violence, or working to kill funding for family planning services that primarily help poor women of color, this White House has put in motion an agenda that would make America a tougher place for black people to live and thrive. Trump’s policies have further enabled the harassment and discrimination against Muslim immigrants, and have used Hispanic and Latino immigrants as a cultural scapegoat. What’s more, he does all this while saying as little as possible about the scourge of domestic terrorism perpetrated by white extremists.
His tantrums are shocking and unbecoming, surely. But as we react in horror and debate Trump’s sanity and his unsuitability for the White House, we should be just as outraged about him doing the very work of white supremacy that the Charlottesville terrorists sought to protect. He gave evil a pass during Tuesday’s rant, proving that he’s willing to ignore his core duty as president to ensure public safety. There are consequences, after all, to enabling terrorists.