The London attack and Trump’s speculative response to it comes the day after he reaffirmed his “both sides” response to Charlottesville. On Wednesday, Trump met with Senator Tim Scott, a black Republican from South Carolina who had been critical of Trump’s response to the attacks. Scott tried to impress upon Trump the long history that fed into the clash.
“I shared my thoughts of the last three centuries of challenges from white supremacists, white nationalists, KKK, Nazis,” Scott said. “So there’s no way to find an equilibrium when you have three centuries of history versus the situation that is occurring today.”
Scott did not seem optimistic that Trump had grasped the lesson. Asked whether Trump expressed regret, the senator said, “He certainly tried to explain what he was trying to convey.” He also offered caution about future statements, using the soft condescension that allies often use when discussing the president: “Anyone that expects an epiphany or a transformation to happen overnight because somebody walks in a room, I think you don’t understand human nature.”
The caution was well-placed. On Thursday, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he stood by his comments that the Charlottesville incidents—in which a neo-Nazi and alt-right march precipitated clashes, and an apparent white supremacist allegedly killed a woman with a car—had blame on both sides.
“Now because of what’s happened since then, with Antifa, you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville—a lot of people are saying—in fact, a lot of people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump might have a point,” Trump said. “I said, ‘You’ve got some very bad people on the other side,’ which is true.” The president has repeatedly seemed to be trying to draw a fine distinction, condemning the Klan but legitimizing a slightly less aggressive form of white identity politics. This may be politically savvy, since white-grievance politics were central to his electoral success. Notably, riling up anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment appeals to the same nationalist impulses as this white-grievance politics.
Perhaps Trump earnestly learned the wrong lesson from the blowback over Charlottesville, and he will be puzzled why he was too slow then and too fast on London. But his critics did not object to him taking his time to give a statement because they feared he did not know the facts; they objected because it doesn’t require a detailed debrief to condemn neo-Nazis. In the case of London, he has not made the mistake of waiting too long, nor does anyone object to condemnation of Islamist terrorism per se. But by tying an overseas attack of unproven provenance to his constitutionally flawed Muslim ban, the president has once again given the impression that he employs one standard and speed when violence helps feed white-grievance politics, and another standard and speed when violence poses a threat to those politics.