President Trump’s short press conference Tuesday afternoon was remarkable for seeming cogent. In so many of his public statements Trump wanders, free-associates, digresses, and seems either incapable or uninterested in piecing together complete sentences. The fact that he didn’t seem to be improvising made his defense of some of those who participated in a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, more important.
It was the clearest and most precise articulation of a view that Trump has espoused since the start of his political career. The president worked to draw a fine distinction between different elements of the march, and in the process to rescue his own vision of pride in white America from being tarnished from association with neo-Nazis. Trump mounted a defense of a political movement rooted in pride about Confederate symbols and white heritage by seeking to disassociate it from its more extreme elements.
“I am not putting anybody on a moral plane,” he said, but that wasn’t quite right. Trump was passing moral judgment on self-described neo-Nazis and white supremacists, in order to defend those who marched alongside them in defense of a Confederate monument, even if they did not endorse either their means or ultimate ends. The latter group forms a core part of Trump’s support. Although many Republican officeholders rushed to condemn Trump’s comments, there’s little evidence to believe most Trump voters disagree with the president. In June 2017, the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found that 70 percent of Trump backers support public monuments to the Confederacy, with only 15 percent approve of their removal. In a June 2015 CNN poll, almost six in 10 whites said they viewed the Confederate battle flag as a sign of Southern heritage, not bigotry.
Having drawn this distinction, Trump could portray what happened in Charlottesville not as a battle over racism but instead as a clash between two equally legitimate political factions. It allowed him to declare that there is an “alt-left” equivalent to the alt-right—fringes that employ violence, and tarnish the “very fine people on both sides”—and to ignore questions about whether there was actually equivalent hatred and malice in the two groups that clashed in Charlottesville.
“You had a group on one side and the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible. It was a horrible thing to watch,” he said. “There is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. You can say what you want. That’s the way it is.”
But one can condemn violence in all forms while still acknowledging that, even before anyone threw a punch in Charlottesville, the Unite the Right rally was led by, and composed of, in large part, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Trump claimed Tuesday that his initial statement on Charlottesville blamed “all sides” because he had not yet gathered the facts, but it doesn’t require any fact-gathering to condemn white supremacy. It does not matter that, as Trump correctly stated, the white nationalists had a permit. The point is not that the president should infringe the right of white nationalists to assemble and speak freely. It is that a system of free speech which relies on good ideas to triumph over bad ones only functions if political leaders, starting with the president, loudly and clearly denounce the content of hateful speech.
The crux of Trump’s statement Tuesday was to draw a distinction between the worst of the extremists who marched in Charlottesville, and the rest who were there. “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists,” Trump said. “They should be condemned totally. You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
How, precisely, had the press treated them unfairly? Apparently by lumping them in with the people they chose to march with—a mob that sported swastikas, bore white-supremacist symbols, and shouted anti-Semitic slogans. Trump argues that there were some in the crowd who disagreed with the neo-Nazis but were there to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee that the city of Charlottesville wants to remove, and thus decided to march alongside them.
This is an old canard in the debate over Civil War symbols: “Heritage, not hate.” Defenders of Confederate statues and Confederate flags have long contended that these symbols represent not hatred of black people but simply reverence for ancestors and a bygone way of life. Many people honestly believe that they are upholding heritage rather than hate in their embrace of Confederate symbols. But that can’t alter what the Confederacy actually stood for, why these symbols were erected in public spaces, or what they mean to many other Americans.
The Civil War was fought to maintain black enslavement and defend white supremacy (a point on which the founding fathers of the Confederacy were quite clear, despite latter-day insistence that the fight was over states’ rights). It was a treasonous rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States, and it was defeated. And defining “Southern culture” around the Confederacy erases the fact that African Americans are an important segment of Southern culture that did not support the war, to say nothing of the many Unionists in secessionist states.
Trump raised another common canard on Tuesday: the slippery slope. “Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status?” he asked. “Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? … Are we going to take down his statue? He was a major slave owner.”
This may seem on its face like the most compelling argument against removing Civil War statues, but as I have written before, it falls apart under any scrutiny. Many Civil War symbols were erected not immediately after the war but at times when white supremacy was asserting itself most aggressively in the South—at the end of the 19th century, as states enacted strict race laws and rolled back Reconstruction, and again in the 1950s and 1960s, during the heart of the civil-rights movement. The United States can, and increasingly is, making sure that discussions of figures like Jefferson are more nuanced than they have been. But there is also a clear, bright line between flawed men who founded the country and those who sought to tear it apart.
“We can distinguish between people who wanted to build the United States of America and people who wanted to destroy it,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed said this summer. “It’s possible to recognize people’s contributions at the same time as recognizing their flaws.”
Trump wants to speak to Americans who disdain Nazis and disavow white supremacists, but who share their sense of cultural displacement, angry resentment at a diversifying nation, and conviction that white Americans are the real victims. Just as he converted birtherism from a fringe, racist belief into a mainstream (though no less racist) movement, Trump is trying to draw a line around a group of people who have beliefs that are substantially similar to those of white nationalists (and in some matters, neo-Nazis)—who are literally willing to march alongside them—and to make them acceptable in polite society because they say they are not neo-Nazis or white nationalists, but simply wish to protect their culture.
This is, probably not coincidentally, precisely the project of the so-called alt-right. As my colleague Rosie Gray put it, “The alt-right movement has sought over the past two years to rebrand white nationalism, lifting it out of the obscure corners of the website Stormfront and elevating it into the mainstream political discussion.” No wonder that alt-right leader Richard Spencer deemed Trump’s condemnation of white supremacists and hate groups on Monday insincere—in retrospect, it clearly was—and was delighted by Tuesday’s change of course.
This might be politically successful. Trump has shown an acute sense for how to push the envelope of racist rhetoric and policy, going far beyond what any mainstream observer would have thought politically possible during both his campaign and his presidency so far—though the presidency has been a series of stumbles. Trump and the alt-right help push each other forward into the mainstream of American politics, and now the president is using the bully pulpit to keep helping his allies. Trump is not much for loyalty per se. He is doing so because he sees a political upside in both appealing to and whipping up a sense of grievance among whites who would never explicitly align themselves with neo-Nazis, but might be made to believe that their culture is in danger because of the removal of an old statue.
In the aftermath of the press conference, even Trump’s media allies seemed initially appalled, and the press said the president had veered off the rails once more. But that misses the point. A senior White House official expressed surprise, telling CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, “That was all him—this wasn't our plan.” Yet the White House fired off a set of talking points to members of Congress that didn’t blink. “The President was entirely correct—both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility,” they stated. Though plenty of observers are disgusted by the president’s validation of racist protesters, no one should be surprised or take it as a spontaneous riff: It was one of the most cogent, precise, and enduring cases he has made as a politician.