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Do you believe President Donald Trump when he denounces white supremacists?
After two days of silence, Trump on Monday explicitly condemned neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and racism in general after a “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one counterprotester dead and dozens injured.
“Racism is evil,” Trump said. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the [Ku Klux Klan], neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
While the standard critics pounced on this statement as too little, too late, even alt-right leader Richard Spencer dismissed the president’s words as meaningless. “His statement today was more kumbaya nonsense,” Spencer told reporters on Monday. “Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
Spencer added that he did not believe Trump had condemned the alt-right or white supremacists with the statement. “I don’t think he condemned it, no,” Spencer said. “Did he say ‘white nationalist?’ ‘Racist’ means an irrational hatred of people. I don’t think he meant any of us.”
Trump’s more pointed words were a follow-up to his off-the-cuff remarks on Saturday, delivered from his golf resort in New Jersey as violence ripped through the streets and parks of Charlottesville.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time,” Trump said. “It has no place in America. What is vital now is the swift restoration of law and order, and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society, and no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play or be with their parents and have a good time.”
Many decried this statement as a tacit endorsement of white supremacy because Trump placed the blame on “many sides”—not those marching with torches and Nazi flags. Indeed, even Andrew Anglin, the founder of infamous neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, interpreted Trump’s statement as an endorsement.
In case you're wondering if President Trump inspires neo-nazis--this is from their publication The Daily Stormer: pic.twitter.com/cT4OZv7VMP— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) August 12, 2017
It is difficult for many onlookers to believe Trump’s second attempt at denouncing white supremacy was genuine due to his delay in delivering it and the fact that he had not thought to say these words in the first place. But it’s more than just that—for starters, Trump is, if nothing else, fantastic at attacking those he views as enemies. For whatever reason, he chose not to use that skill—at least not against the racist demonstrators in Charlottesville.
As the uproar over Charlottesville continued to boil, for example, Trump attacked Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier—the only Black chief executive of a major pharmaceutical company—after he decided to resign from the president’s manufacturing advisory board over Trump’s soft condemnation of white supremacists on Saturday.
Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council,he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2017
After implying that Frazier was profiting at the expense of sick Americans, Trump directly attacked the media for not taking his belated denouncement of racists as seriously as he hoped they would, calling them “truly bad people.” To be clear, Trump called members of the media “truly bad people,” not Nazis.
Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied...truly bad people!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2017
Trump’s ability to attack those he views as his opponents—“Crooked Hillary,” “fake news,” Morning Joe, Democrats, federal judges, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on and on—is one of his most reliable skills. It is also a skill he kept holstered for days before denouncing Nazis.
Those who view Trump’s behavior around Charlottesville as appropriate dismiss the criticisms as unfair. Like Trump, they blame the counterprotesters, some of whom brawled with the alt-right demonstrators, for the violence. They claim it is impossible Trump has sympathy for neo-Nazis when his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner are Jewish.
Only a complete moron would call someone who has Jewish grandchildren a White Supremacist.— Brigitte Gabriel (@ACTBrigitte) August 14, 2017
Of course the perception that Trump has aligned himself with a racist contingent in America goes back to the beginning of his candidacy, if not back to his days as the leading proponent of the Birther movement.
The alt-right, which proudly touts white supremacist and white nationalist views, fiercely supported Trump’s candidacy and continues to support him as president. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, helped give rise to the alt-right itself through Breitbart News, which Bannon ran before joining the Trump campaign. White House advisers Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka have expressed views that align with alt-right ideology.
As journalist Joshua Green reports in his new book about Bannon, Devil’s Bargain, the Trump campaign refused to denounce racism because they saw no political benefit to doing so—to say nothing of the morality in question.
Now in the White House, Trump’s team continues to see little benefit to going out of their way to oppose racism. When the Daily Beast asked one unnamed White House official whether Trump would travel to Charlottesville, they responded, “Why the hell would we do that?” The official believed doing so would be “used against” Trump.
To doubt Trump’s sincerity in his denouncement of racism and those who further its vileness is to observe the available facts. Trump could have called the demonstrators waving Nazi flags on the streets of Charlottesville “truly bad people,” but he did not. He could do everything in his power to dig himself out of the pro-white hole he dove into during the campaign, but he appears unwilling or uninterested in doing so.
Trump will face critics no matter what he does. But if he uses that fact as his guiding light, it may be history that judges him most harshly.
Andrew Couts is the former editor of Layer 8, a section dedicated to the intersection of the Internet and the state—and the gaps in between. Prior to the Daily Dot, Couts served as features editor and features writer for Digital Trends, associate editor of TheWeek.com, and associate editor at Maxim magazine. When he’s not working, Couts can be found hiking with his German shepherds or blasting around on motorcycles.