Why White Supremacists Find Comfort in Trump's Erratic Messaging

The White House’s inconsistent statements muddle the official story, leave aides twisting in the wind, and give alt-right leaders reason for hope.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Will the real Donald Trump—or perhaps the @realDonaldTrump—please stand up?

It’s been several days of mixed messages from the president. Monday afternoon, he delivered a statement that condemned neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacists. It came two days too late for many observers, but it was still welcomed. But by Monday evening and Tuesday morning, Trump had reverted to his normal form on Twitter, retweeting a conspiracy-theorist alt-right figure, complaining about how the media received his statement, and retweeting an anti-CNN meme, though that retweet was later deleted.

Which is the real Trump? Is it the one who delivered the carefully calibrated remarks Monday declaring that “racism is evil?” Or is it the one who on Saturday blamed “all sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, on Sunday released an ad referring to the media as his “enemies,” and then lashed out on Twitter?

Determining which of these personas is genuine is difficult—who can know a man’s mind from afar?—but there’s enough evidence to make an inference. As I noted on Monday, the statement that the president delivered at the White House was uncharacteristically stiff and formal. He read carefully from prepared remarks, never diverging even to include the ad libs he tends to favor when working from a teleprompter. This was not the freewheeling, improvisatory Trump whom the nation has come to know and either love or detest. The substance of Trump’s words was peculiar too. He has in the past been slow or simply refused to denounce support from white supremacists and white nationalists, and has retweeted memes and tweets steeped in the movement.

The Twitter barrage on Monday and Tuesday also points that way. First, Trump got into a strange sniping match with CNN’s Jim Acosta, the TV pool reporter of the day, in which they called each other fake news (yes, this happened) and Trump claimed to have given a press conference he had not held. Next, he complained that the press hadn’t congratulated him enough for calling racism evil:

Then he retweeted the alt-right figure Jack Posobiec, a leading exponent of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, about violence in Chicago:

The convoluted argument is that the media are biased by focusing on instances of racial violence by white nationalists and ignoring violence inside the black community. That conveniently ignores the ways in which mass rallies of white supremacists are different from ordinary crime, and it spreads the idea that African Americans are violent.

Tuesday morning, the president added in a retweet of a meme that showed a figure with a CNN logo on his head trying to stop a Trump train:

It’s not worth thinking too deeply about this image—the original tweeter noted the CNN figure isn’t really being run over, but is simply failing to stop the train—except as red meat to the CNN- and media-hating side of Trump’s base. He deleted the retweet, and the White House said he hadn’t meant to tweet it. This seems plausible, since he also accidentally retweeted someone calling him (or perhaps Joe Arpaio) a fascist around the same time, but it’s also in keeping with another, equally silly CNN meme he tweeted several weeks ago.

Adding more reason to believe that this is the more genuine Trump, the Associated Press reports that the president had to be cajoled into making a second statement on the Charlottesville attacks by advisers:

Loath to appear to be admitting a mistake, Trump was reluctant to adjust his remarks. The president had indicated to advisers before his initial statement Saturday that he wanted to stress a need for law and order, which he did. He later expressed anger to those close to him about what he perceived as the media’s unfair assessment of his remarks, believing he had effectively denounced all forms of bigotry, according to outside advisers and White House officials.

Several of Trump’s senior advisers, including new chief of staff John Kelly, had urged him to make a more specific condemnation, warning that the negative story would not go away and that the rising tide of criticism from fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill could endanger his legislative agenda, according to two White House officials.

Regardless of which Trump is real, his split personalities produce consequential disjunctures. On several occasions, the president has made a controversial statement, left advisers to try to defend it publicly, and then pulled the rug out from under them. This happened when Trump claimed he fired FBI Director James Comey after receiving a memo critical of his handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton; Vice President Pence and others dutifully repeated that until Trump himself told Lester Holt that actually he had already decided before he got the memo, and that the cause was the Russia investigation.

It happened again when Trump announced a joint cybersecurity effort with Russia. Amid heavy public mockery, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended it on the Sunday shows. That evening, Trump blew the effort up in a tweet. And after Trump’s comments on Saturday, Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and others insisted he’d been plenty clear. Then Trump implicitly admitted he hadn’t gone far enough. Then he apparently changed his mind back again.

Sowing this confusion creates various problems. As in international diplomacy, where no one knows whether Trump’s threats are credible, it’s hard to know whether to believe what Trump says at any given moment, lest he quickly reverse himself. It calls the president’s honesty into question, and could complicate his defense against any accusations that emerge from the Russia probe.

It also allows white supremacists to claim shelter and take heart from his words. What Trump is doing isn’t exactly dog-whistling, because the contradictory views are audible to all, but the effect is similar. White supremacists understand that Trump couldn’t full-throatedly embrace them if he wanted to, but they interpret his equivocation as a blessing. After Trump’s initial comments on Saturday, a post on the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer celebrated his remarks for not calling out racists. And after Trump’s Monday mulligan, the alt-right figure Richard Spencer dismissed the new statement as insincere. As my colleague Rosie Gray reported from a press conference Monday afternoon, Spencer called it “kumbaya nonsense.” “He sounded like a Sunday school teacher,” he said. “I just don’t take it seriously.”

Any of Spencer’s confederates who were still unsure could take reassurance from Trump’s amplification of Posobiec and complaints about the media, which made the tempered condemnation look ever more like an outlier. Those who disagree with Spencer could just as easily see the same pattern and draw a similar conclusion.