The Many-Sided Lie
On Saturday, Donald Trump took time from his busy golfing schedule to deliver his remarks about the Nazi insurgency in Charlottesville. Many had wondered what took the President this long to comment on Charlottesville, as he’s hardly been hesitant to respond to his critics on Twitter or to react almost immediately to Muslim terrorist attacks. I expected that he would say something stupid, impolitic and incoherent, and would bend over backwards to absolve himself of blame. And on that score, he didn’t disappoint.
Like any true artist, however, Donald Trump gives you more than what you expect. Using his mouth as his brush, and bullshit as his paint, Trump produced a masterpiece of duplicitous logic. By now you’re familiar with his most infamous quote from Saturday, but allow me to present it to you again because, much like Mona Lisa’s smile, it must be seen again and again before it can be fully appreciated:
“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. This has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives.”
Truly breathtaking, isn’t it? “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Trump’s knee-jerk impulse to echo the phrase “on many sides” is truly the masterstroke of the piece — and what makes it all the more remarkable is that you can tell it was improvised. Bannon and/or Miller may have written that speech for him, but it takes a bullshit artist like Trump to give a phrase like that resonance.
Trump somehow found the strength to be equivocal in his denouncement of the violence in Charlottesville in the aftermath of media reports of a white nationalist ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotestors, injuring 19 and killing one, Heather Heyer. But for those trained to hear the dog whistle, the inference was clear: we’re not singling out white nationalists for blame because we don’t disagree with their motives.
Remember, the reason white nationalists descended on Charlottesville in the first place was to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. Allow me to briefly remind you who Robert E. Lee was: a man who married into one of the biggest slaveholding families in Virginia and was, by many accounts, a cruel slavemaster even by the standards of his day. There’s a sepia-toned hagiography that hangs around men like Lee; supporters of the Confederacy will claim that they were simply defending struggling southern farmers against “Northern aggression.” In their view, tearing down monuments to the Confederacy is an erasure of American history.
Of course, this perspective is hysterical, both in the sense of being laughable and in terms of being insane. The fact is Lee and his ilk were not only slaveholding racists, they were also traitors to the United States. Erecting statues to seditious war heroes was always a counterintuitive idea — the only difference now is that people are more willing to point that out and take action to change it.
And for those who would say that tearing down effigies to Confederate figures like Lee is somehow an erasure of our American past: all you need to do is look to the various books, articles, novels, short stories, TV shows, films, albums, radio programs and podcasts produced in this country alone that are devoted to exploring that period in American history. Hell, there’s even an upcoming show from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss that offers an alternative universe in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. So don’t tell me that the loss of Confederate statues in public spaces means the “erasure” of their history. Ask the Native Americans about that shit.
But I digress. The “many sides” lie is a popular tactic among Trump supporters to deny any real responsibility for the racial ills that inflict this country. Otherwise known as whataboutism, the many sides argument is to deflect blame by pointing out shortcomings (whether perceived and actual) on the other side. Thus, when Trump said “many sides, many sides,” his audience knew what groups he was referring to: Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and other left-leaning groups. In particular, the fiction that BLM is responsible for criminal activity has been promulgated in the right-wing mediasphere despite a lack of concrete evidence. There’s also no evidence that links such groups to the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, though we do know that the man who killed Heyer had a history of violence and was radicalized by white nationalist rhetoric.
By using the many-sided lie, Trump tried to conflate white nationalists with BLM and other groups, which obviates the fact that the two sides have diametrically opposite aims. BLM protests the racist, hegemonic structure of this country — white nationalists seek to reinforce it. BLM wants to call attention to the systematic oppression blacks and other minorities experience at the hands of the police — white nationalists pooh-pooh charges of police brutality despite mounds of evidence.
What gives white nationalists cause to protest when they already have the White House and Justice Department stocked with people who share their ideological perspective? Despite all that Donald Trump and his associates have done to assure them that their whiteness will once again be privileged, it still isn’t enough. They feel a gnawing insecurity about their place in this country that no amount of presidential gaslighting can fully absolve. Perhaps they took some small comfort in Trump’s declaration for “a swift restoration of law and order,” which is doublespeak for enforcing the strictures on free speech and free assembly for groups like BLM.
I should point out that Trump issued a second statement on Charlottesville on Monday in which he took a more forceful tone in denouncing white nationalism. But to anyone who watched his stagecrafted address, it was obvious that he took no relish in delivering it. And not only do Trump’s critics realize that the speech was hollow, so do his supporters. White nationalist poster boy Richard Spencer was quoted thusly by The New York Times in response to Trump’s remarks: “The statement today was more ‘kumbaya’ nonsense…I don’t think that Donald Trump is a dumb person, and only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
I’m not often in a position where I’m inclined to mostly agree with Spencer (we differ on the “Donald Trump is dumb” part) but these are strange and interesting times we live in.