The weekend of August 12, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia descended into violence. On Friday night, white nationalists attacked counter-protesters. And on Saturday, a woman named Heather Heyer was killed when a man purposely drove his car into a group of counter-protesters. In response, President Trump blamed both sides. “We condemn in the strongest possible
terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” He didn’t call out the white supremacists by name. He didn’t acknowledge that they were the ones who had initiated the violence or engaged in the lethal violence that killed Heather Heyer. Instead of assuring people that these groups are dangerous and wrong, he actively misled people about what happened in Charlottesville. He implied the white nationalists and the
counter-protesters were equally to blame. That hate was a 50-50 split. “We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together.” All of this stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric he uses when he talks about terrorists who are Muslim. “Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our homeland. As they did on 9/11. As they did from Boston to Orlando to San Bernardino. An Islamic terrorist turned his truck into
an instrument of mass murder… Radical Islamic terrorists. And she won’t even mention the word. We cannot let this evil continue. Trump doesn’t have a problem calling people out by name. The family of a dead US service member, the cast of Hamilton, Meryl Streep, Barack Obama, John McCain, just to name a few. But Trump’s vague and tepid response to the white supremacists in Charlottesville wasn’t just
annoying or misleading. White nationalists took it as a sign of tacit approval. A post on the white nationalist site The Daily Stormer praised Trump’s lack of condemnation, writing, accurately, that when asked to condemn, “he walked out of the room.” Trump did the same thing during the campaign. “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.” “Yeah, get him out, try not to hurt him. If you do I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.” He refused to condemn violence at his campaign rallies. In fact, he offered to pay legal fees of people who beat up protestors. “Knock the crap out of them would you? Seriously, okay. Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees, I promise.” “Do you believe that you’ve done anything to create a tone where this kind of violence would be encouraged?” “I hope not. I truly hope not. I will say this. We have 25, 30 thousand people, you’ve seen it yourself. People come with tremendous passion and love for their country.” He refused to condemn supporters who beat up a Mexican man in Trump’s name, saying that his followers were very “passionate.” He refused to condemn the self-described “alt-right,” an online movement that’s dealt increasingly in white nationalist rhetoric and tropes… “Heil Trump, heil our people, heil victory!” …while claiming to be simply trolls and provocateurs. “The Trump guys, the alt-right, the Twitter kind of meme and troll brigade.” Look. In the streets, it’s impossible to tell the difference between someone who’s giving a Nazi salute “ironically” and someone who’s doing it in earnest. And at a time when the people doing it in earnest are engaging in physical violence, those who claim they’re doing it “ironically” don’t appear to have any problem with the confusion or fear they might cause. The President isn’t condemning them the way he condemns Islamist terrorists. It might seem as if he’s not taking a side. But by doing that, he is taking a side. He’s giving succor to the people who engaged in hate in Charlottesville over the weekend, and refusing comfort to those who live in fear of what that hate could mean for them.