Things started on a somewhat conciliatory note Tuesday.
“Every American has the right to live with dignity,” Trump said. “Respect for America demands respect for all of its people. Loyalty to our nation requires loyalty to each other. We all share the same home, the same dreams, and the same hopes for a better future. A wound inflicted upon one member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all.”
Those uncharacteristically staid and inclusive words, read straight from a teleprompter, were precisely the kind of statement that most Americans expected the president to make last Saturday after the attack in Charlottesville, and to stick to. But they turned out not to augur a calmer speech. Instead, Trump soon headed off script, delivering a jeremiad that was sharply at odds with both those words and the truth.
The most blatant dishonesty concerned his response to the violence in Charlottesville. Trump made several statements about those events. On August 12, the day of the attacks, he said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Many people, including his own aides, viewed that statement as inadequate. Two days later he delivered a stronger one, saying, “Racism is evil.” But on August 15, he reversed course again, endorsing a sort of soft white supremacy and arguing that while the KKK and neo-Nazis were unacceptable, many of those who marched with them were good people. This statement earned him widespread condemnation, even from Republicans.
In Phoenix, Trump defended his response, arguing the media had lied about what he said.
“‘We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia’—this is me speaking—‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence.’ That's me speaking on Saturday, right after the event. So I'm condemning, the strongest possible terms, ‘egregious display of bigotry, hatred, and violence.’ You can't do much better.”
But this account was a lie itself. The phrase that stunned Trump’s critics was the “on many sides,” which he carefully omitted from his retelling in Phoenix. His case against media dishonesty rested on his own dishonesty. It was a textbook example of Trump’s penchant for projecting his own flaws and obsessions on others. Later on, the president, who has long obsessed publicly and privately over television ratings, added, “If you wanted to discover the source of the division in our country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media, which would rather get ratings and clicks than tell the truth.” (Physician, heal thyself!) He also falsely claimed The New York Times had apologized to him for its coverage.
For all of Trump’s protestation that he condemned neo-Nazis and the Klan, the rally speech betrayed the fact that he spends far more energy bashing other groups—the press, certain Republican senators, Democrats—than he does denouncing white supremacists, and his attacks on the latter groups are never so glumly dutiful or begrudgingly delivered.