by David M. Greenwald
In a presidency that in general has made a mockery of American democracy, this represented a low water mark. It was night where most of the more honest of the president’s supporters couldn’t offer a full-throated defense. Some said he came in too hot and got worse from there.
For his part, former Vice President Biden seemed rattled in the first round of questions, with the president jamming, interrupting, and outright bullying him. He seemed to find his footing after that—albeit he took the bait a few too many times, but overall he seemed engaged and spirited, if at times nonplussed by the spectacle.
Tenor aside, if you were concerned with comments from last week that the president might not accept defeat, I think that concern grows. But here I will focus on the refusal of the president to simply denounce white supremacy, once and for all.
On Monday, one of the president’s supporters on Facebook pushed back against the idea that the president was racist. One of the lines of defense that some have offered is that you can’t point to an actual statement that is racist by the president.
My argument here has always been that, first, I really know that the president himself is racist. But I do feel that, first of all, he uses dog whistle language to push the buttons of his key supporters.
In the podcast I did two weeks ago with USC Law Professor Jody Armour, we had a discussion of the 2017 ANES (National Election Study) which found that THE most strong predictor of who voted for the Trump were people who fit onto a racial aggrievement scale.
I believe that for the most part he has been able to get away with pushing racial tensions because he can draw up against the bright line while not crossing it. After all, it’s not as though, in 2020, anyone but an outright white supremacist can say there are no “n-words” allowed at the lunch counter—and short of that, some will not acknowledge racial prejudice or dog whistles.
On Monday the president’s supporter was adamant that we could not prove racial prejudice.
And then the moment happened where Chris Wallace asked Trump if he was willing to disavow white supremacists and militia groups. He indicated that he would before pivoting back to “Antifa” as his line of attack.
That wasn’t good enough for either Wallace or Biden.
“Proud Boys, stand back and standby,” Trump said.
“But I’ll tell you what,” he added. “Somebody has to do something about Antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
Writes the National Poverty Law Center, “Their disavowals of bigotry are belied by their actions: rank-and-file Proud Boys and leaders regularly spout white nationalist memes and maintain affiliations with known extremists. They are known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric.”
They continue: “Proud Boys have appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings like the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville. Indeed, former Proud Boys member Jason Kessler helped to organize the event, which brought together Klansmen, antisemites, Southern racists, and militias.”
We can perhaps debate the precise meaning of “stand back” and “standby.”
Perhaps he was sloppily attempting to tell them to back off. But even that—best possible light for sure—stopped well short of what most people would consider a full-throated denunciation.
As I said earlier this week, the best you can say about Trump on issues of race and especially on issues of cozying up to white supremacy is that he skirts the line between political conservativism and white supremacy—which ought to be a bright line of denunciation. He sees a political benefit of living in that gray area.
My friend, to his credit, wrote: “I can NOW agree with you on that point.”
He argued, “Trump failed the American people in many ways tonight.” He said, “I also think someone NEEDS to condemn ANTIFIA and the organization of BLM as well though.”
He added, “We will see what happens between now and election time if some clearer clarification can happen.”
It is times like these that Trump has been his own worst enemy. All he had to do is make the argument, “Hey I believe that while a lot of the problems are groups on the left like ANTIFA and BLM, that right wing militia groups are part of the problem and that everyone needs to keep their cool.” Something like that. Anything.
Heck, he could have been much more vague—white supremacy is bad and anyone who spouts racist ideology needs to stop.
He needed a clear statement. And he couldn’t even do that.
“This is a president who has used everything as a dog whistle to try to generate racist hatred, racist division,” the former vice president said.
In the end, Trump couldn’t refute this point.
Even by the low standards that he has set forth in his years as president, this was a disgrace. In another time and another place, Army chief counsel Joseph Welch, under fire from Joseph McCarthy at the congressional hearings, finally pushed back and effectively ended McCarthyism and his career by stating, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
In modern times, it seems that ship has sailed and therefore there is no one left to come forward and put an end to this madness.
Last night marked a new low, but perhaps we finally crossed the Rubicon to the point where people can no longer have plausible deniability of the loss of decency in this nation.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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