This has been a weird week for the President—one damaging story faded into another, faded into yet another. But I want to focus here on the issue of white supremacy. His failure to make a clear statement against it this week figures to have repercussions beyond the news cycle, that has lately been dominated by his COVID infection.
The pushback by his supporters this week was: he did repudiate white supremacy and he has repudiated it in the past.
That is true so far as it goes—but I maintain that, in 2020, you cannot, even if you are Donald Trump, have an overtly racist platform. What you need is plausible deniability. As we pointed out previously, research from the American National Election Studies (ANES) study from the 2016 Election, one of the top predictors of whether or not some voted for Trump was the sense of racial threat (as opposed to economic threat).
The result has been a presidency that has attempted to fan those flames of racial discord and to push up against the line of white supremacy in order to come as close as possible to it without crossing into clear areas of racial prejudice.
We see that this this week, with his Proud Boys remark: “Proud Boys, stand back and standby.”
The Proud Boys didn’t take that as a repudiation—they took it as a call to arms. It’s on their logo. They view this as a matter of pride, not a matter of repudiation.
So did the President repudiate white supremacy? His supporters argue he did.
Chris Wallace: “[Are] you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and to say they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”
Trump responds, “Sure I’m willing to do that.”
Is that enough? Apparently for his supporters.
But in real time, Chris Wallace did not believe so.
“Then do it, say it,” he said.
Trump responds, “You wanna call them—what do you wanna call them, give me a name. Who would you like me to condemn?”
Wallace responds, “White supremacists.”
Joe Biden chimes in, “Proud Boys.”
Trump says, “Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by.” Then he moves on to talk about the Antifa.
The problem is, “sure” is not a repudiation—and the clearest statement he made, the Proud Boys interpreted as a “call for arms.”
The problem that Trump has is merely saying “sure” is not a condemnation. Condemnation requires an affirmative statement—preferably one that is clear and unequivocal. That never happened.
What he needed to do was make a clear and unequivocal statement condemning white supremacy. Heck, his advisors had to know this question was coming, why didn’t they have him prepared with a strong statement? And then stop talking.
His supporters are doing him no favors on this either. James Robbins, an opinion columnist with USA Today, argued, “Trump did condemn white supremacists, too bad so many people won’t listen.”
He makes a lot of mistakes here when he argues, “Can we once and for all kill off the distortion that Donald Trump called white supremacists ‘very fine people?’ In the very same comments people are always quoting, Trump said ‘I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the White nationalists.’”
The problem once again is—not exactly.
I have poured over this interview so many different times, and the problem is that his condemnation of neo-Nazis and white nationalists comes in a different paragraph as the infamous “both sides” statement. This is once again an example where Trump could have been unequivocal but again attempted to straddle the line of white supremacy rather than being clear.
He did state that “there’s blame on both sides…” and later that “you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Then later, he says, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists—because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”
I have noted that, wait a second, who was at Charlottesville? White supremacists, the alt-right, KKK, Neo-Nazis, Neo-confederates, and the Traditionalist Workers Party.
My argument is who in the heck is Trump talking about in those groups that he is calling a fine person?
One of our commenters noted that there were people at the rally not in those groups, but opposed to removing Confederate statues.
Really? This was billed as a “Unite the Right” rally, but this wasn’t the mainstream right. This was always a white supremacist rally. So, while it is true that the event was organized in protest to the proposed removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s former Lee Park, the reality is that the only people who were going to go there were those comfortable being alongside these hate groups—who actually organized the event.
The event itself was organized by Jason Kessler, himself an avowed neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist.
Again, there is no escape hatch here. The people at this rally were either white supremacists—or fellow travelers who had no compunction against showing up at an event that was organized by and dominated by such groups.
In both cases, Trump makes the same “mistake.” He should have just repudiated it, and moved on. But he couldn’t do that. You can argue that he misspoke—perhaps—but he never said he did. I put “mistake” in quotes because it seems to be not a mistake, but a calculated move by him.
He bumps up against white supremacy, he mobilizes the foot soldiers, he understands that key groups are activated by racial threat—and yet he issues weak denials as his security blanket of plausible deniability.
Just as Trump needs to make a clear, unequivocal denial and then stop talking, his supporters need to stop trying to defend this. There is no defense. His statement was clear. His non-statements are equally clear.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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