Why Can’t Trump Just Condemn Nazis?

In marking the one-year anniversary of a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the president again fails to differentiate between bigots and those who oppose them.

President Trump speaks about violence in Charlottesville at an August 15, 2017, press conference. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

When violence erupted during a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, one year ago this weekend, President Trump was slow to respond. When he did, his response was shockingly diffident, condemning the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”

The president was faster to comment on the anniversary of the march. Saturday morning, he tweeted:

Following last year’s violence, Trump infamously delivered a series of conflicting statements. Following the “many sides” statement, the president attempted a cleanup the following Monday at the White House, naming “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” The next day he reversed course again during a combative press conference, saying there were “very fine people on both sides” and attacking what he called the “alt-left.”

Trump’s tweet Saturday shows that his vision of what happened hasn’t gotten any clearer with the passage of a year. He’s still unable to name Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists for what they are, and unable to differentiate between those groups and groups that oppose them.

The condemnation of “all types of racism” is, on its face, a positive, but it can also be read as a coded reference to the idea that there is an anti-white racist movement seeking “genocide” of white people. White supremacists will certainly read it that way.

The condemnation of “all … acts of violence,” apologizes for the instigators in Charlottesville under the guise of reasonability. There’s no debating that violence is bad. There’s also no question who was responsible for touching off the violence in Charlottesville: the group of white supremacists and Nazis who marched on the town, many carrying weapons, to shout racist slogans and defend statutes that commemorate a traitorous rebellion that sought to preserve the enslavement of black people. One person, Heather Heyer, died when one of the ralliers drove a car into a crowd. Others were beaten.

By declining to name the aggressors, Trump places the ralliers on an even footing with those who came out to oppose them. “I am not putting anybody on a moral plane,” the president said a year ago, but once again he has done just that.

Given his refusal to differentiate between the groups, his lament for social division rings false. It’s proper for there to be division between polite society and Nazis, white supremacists, and the like. Besides, the president has seldom passed up an opportunity to sow social division where it suits him. Just a day ago, he was once again railing at NFL players who have kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, inserting himself into a feud that is not his concern in order to profit from racial tension.

Why can’t the president name these hate groups for what they are? For one thing, he has a long history of racist rhetoric and action of his own. His earliest turn in the public eye came when the Justice Department sued the Trump Organization for trying to keep black tenants out of its properties. Some years later, he called for the execution of the black and Hispanic men known as the Central Park Five; they were later exonerated, but he refused to apologize or back down for his earlier statements.

For another, Trump has a keen eye for who and what is up. As my colleague Adam Serwer writes, the white nationalists are winning. The events in Charlottesville appalled much of the nation, but the rhetoric the marchers espoused has seeped from the fringe into mainstream dialogue. As for the president, what he learned from last year’s fracas is that no matter how much flak he takes early on, he can survive with few repercussions.

It’s tempting at times to view Trump as a Chauncey Gardiner–esque naïf, fumbling back and forth between positions. Yet as I wrote a year ago, the reversals serve a carefully calibrated purpose of encouraging the politics of white resentment and offering comfort to white supremacists. The double meanings in Saturday’s tweet once again show Trump’s precise and intentional grasp of language.

Nazis and open white supremacists may not constitute a significant portion of the president’s base, but white voters who nurse racial resentments and anxieties are. As a result, Trump has an interest in soft-pedaling any criticism of the Nazis themselves, and of encouraging racial resentments, concluding that there’s more to be gained from doing so than there is from condemning white supremacists. The result is an American president who can’t bring himself to condemn Nazis as Nazis.