Events surrounding the so-called “Unite the Right” rally of neo-Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists held in Charlottesville, Virgina are forcing Americans to make a choice. And that includes the president.
Images of angry white men carrying torches — some of whom wore swastikas, or carried Nazi or Confederate flags — flooded the internet. One rally-goer plowed a car into a crowd of people protesting the rally, killing 1 and injuring at least 19. It was a terrorist attack reminiscent of ISIS, but committed by a white American on U.S. soil.
Trump had to respond , but there was no way to avoid alienating part of his coalition. On Saturday, shortly after the violence, the president said:
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.
Everyone heard the message.
If there’s one thing we know about Donald Trump, it’s this: when he thinks someone did something wrong, his response is quick, direct, and vicious. Examples include:
- Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents who appeared at the Democratic national convention.
- Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who oversaw the fraud trial for Trump university.
- Megyn Kelly, who asked tough questions at a debate.
- Kim Jong Un, who threatened America.
- Attorney General and early Trump supporter Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation.
- And many more.
We know what Trumpian condemnation sounds like. Granted, the examples I listed involved personal slights against Trump, but his rhetoric after ISIS attacks has been similarly pointed. He could have condemned the racist rally, or at least focused on the driver who rammed the crowd.
But he didn’t. He made a lukewarm statement about “many sides.”
The white supremacists heard it too. Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, reacted positively:
After facing pointed criticism — including some from Republicans and Trump-friendly media — the president issued another statement. Trump opened by praising his administration’s economic record, then promised to investigate the vehicle attack and said:
Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
Most critics remained unsatisfied. Trump’s first statement was off-the-cuff; his second prepared. It took two days for the president to say it, and leaked reports claimed his staff had to push him to do it.
And the president still slipped in some “on all sides” blanket condemnation with “and other groups” and “including.” Those caveats don’t usually feature in his statements about ISIS.
Trump also said “anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable,” which white supremacists interpreted as including Antifa and Black Lives Matter. That’s who they blame for the violence, claiming that Unite the Right marchers just wanted to demonstrate peacefully.
Richard Spencer, a self-described white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” claimed there was little substantial difference between Trump’s two statements.
Within hours of his prepared statement, the president was back to himself.
He retweeted alt-right blogger Jack Posobiec’s attempt to distract from Charlottesville with some whataboutism:
And complained about unfair treatment from the media:
“Truly bad people!” Now that’s what Trump sounds like when he wants to call someone out.
The Trump Coalition
I don’t claim to know what Trump really feels about white supremacy. His response to Charlottesville fits with someone who either:
- Agrees with, or at least doesn’t have a problem with, the neo-Nazi demonstrators.
- Thought of politics first and didn’t want to alienate Americans who, as evidenced by the marchers’ MAGA gear, are among his most enthusiastic supporters.
- Rejects the role of post-tragedy national conscience, which has been part of the job since FDR, America’s first mass media president.
- Is in way over his head.
No matter the explanation, Trump’s response was woefully inadequate for Americans who do have a problem with neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, David Duke, etc. And that includes members of Trump’s coalition, which means he has a big political problem.
To get elected and succeed in office, Trump needs four somewhat overlapping groups: populists, partisan Republicans, the alt-right, and the business community.
The Trumpian populists include many white working class Americans, especially older ones, who like him for his style, his rhetoric — the way he praises them, rejects political correctness, and sticks it to establishment elites.
Disrespecting Elites is the Point of Trumpian Populism
Donald Trump is comfortable fighting in public. It’s what his supporters want.
And most get their information from pro-Trump media. If these supposed populists are still with him after his promise to replace Obamacare with better healthcare for less money proved false in so many ways, they’re not going anywhere.
The alt-right — which includes both white supremacists and online trolls happy to associate with white supremacists because it pisses other people off — is quite pleased with how Trump handled Charlottesville, though a few grumbled online that Trump’s second statement was misguided capitulation.
The president’s problem is with the other two groups.
Trump’s weak response was too much for some partisan Republicans. And not just longtime Trump critics, such as George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson — who wrote a scathing column called “Trump Babbles in the Face of Tragedy” — and Bush’s chief ethics lawyer Richard Painter.
Conservative NeverTrumpers were joined by some Members of Congress who previously kept their criticism private.
For example, here’s Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who chairs the powerful Finance Committee:
Democrats argue this sort of verbal criticism, no matter how pointed, is meaningless, because Congressional Republicans don’t oppose Trump with their actions.
But that’s not true. A bill which slapped new sanctions on Russia and blocked the president from easing existing sanctions without Congressional authorization passed 98–2 in the Senate and 419–3 in the House against the president’s wishes. Faced with the embarrassment of a veto override, Trump signed it (while still saying it was a bad idea). As a result, his first real legislation after seven months in office was a sanctions bill he didn’t want.
As Trump tried to gaslight Jeff Sessions into resigning, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley announced the schedule was too full to hold hearings for another Attorney General. Other Congressional Republicans warned Trump not to fire Sessions, or special counsel Robert Mueller, and thus far the president hasn’t.
And, in the most public rebuke, Senators Collins, Murkowski, and McCain voted down Obamacare repeal, even though Trump desperately wanted a “win” on healthcare, no matter the policy details.
The Trumpcare failure seems to have clarified things for some “principled conservatives” willing to sell out some of their principles if it advances their agenda. If they can’t pass anything, why put up with Trump’s embarrassments?
The answer, for some partisan Republicans, is that America is in the midst of a civil war, and liberals must be opposed at any cost.
But for others, Charlottesville was a step too far. Few Republicans are proud to back a president who has trouble unequivocally saying Nazis are bad.
The fourth pillar of Trump’s coalition is the business community, who’s in it for reduced regulations and tax cuts. Anticipating these policy changes, the stock market rose following Trump’s election, and the economy has continued the unspectacular-but-steady growth of 2016. No matter what business leaders think of Trump in private, many have been supportive in public.
One of the most public ways to support the president is by serving on his manufacturing council. In June, Tesla’s Elon Musk resigned over Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. In response to Charlottesville, the CEOs of Merck, Under Armour, and Intel quit, as did Scott Paul, head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Other prominent leaders criticized the president, but stayed on the council. For now.
First to leave after Charlottesville was Kenneth Frazier of Merck, one of the most prominent black executives in the United States. His statement:
America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.
Trump responded by attacking him on Twitter.
When the others followed, he went after them too.
Again, this is what he sounds like when he has a problem with someone.
For most executives this is at least partially a business decision. As I wrote when Fox News fired Bill O’Reilly, businesses care about their brand and try to avoid negative associations.
O’Reilly’s sexual harassment scandals made him toxic to sponsors. They pulled ads, which meant he was no longer profitable for Fox.
Similarly, associating with Donald Trump is becoming increasingly toxic for brands, forcing executives to make a decision. As O’Reilly and other cases show, these things can cascade, because businesses distancing themselves draws attention and makes those that remain seem insensitive. And few things could be worse for a brand than being perceived as pro-Nazi.
This compounds Trump’s problem with Congressional Republicans. They’re afraid of angering the populists and the “civil war” Republicans because it risks a primary challenge. That kept them in line. But they travel in similar circles as the business leaders and don’t want to lose donors.
The Political Problem
This fault line was always present in the Trump coalition, but the white supremacists forced a reckoning. Yes, Trump encouraged them with winks and nods, but they decided to step it up with Charlottesville and other demonstrations. As a result, they’re thwarting partisan Republicans and business leaders’ attempt to pretend they’re a tiny, irrelevant fringe.
Just one day after Trump’s scripted second statement he addressed Charlottesville in a press conference. The president returned to his original stance, casting “blame on both sides.” He repeatedly disputed accounts of the demonstrators, insisting many were not Nazis or white supremacists.
We could quibble over labels, but this much is indisputable: all the marchers were at least okay with being around people wearing swastikas and chanting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”
For whatever reason, President Trump has decided defending the marchers is preferable to unequivocally denouncing them.
This forces Republicans, business leaders, and other Americans to answer a question: which side do you want to be on?