The extremist violence in Charlottesville didn’t come out of the blue: it has been brewing, openly, for a long time. It’s part of what the extremist Andrew Anglin calls “The Summer of Hate” and it is enabled – as Anglin has said openly – by President Trump.
In May, white nationalists marched to protest the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a park. They carried burning torches: a familiar, historic symbol of violent racism and lynching in the United States.
Recently far-right leaders began publicizing another rally set for Saturday in Charlottesville, titled “Unite the Right.” Already on Friday, Ku Klux Klan and white nationalists marched, chanting Nazi slogans such as “blood and soil,” and again holding burning torches. As in Dangerous Speech analysis, one must carefully consider context. While Nazi symbols may seem distant to many Americans, a mob of torch-wielding racists 70 miles from the former capital of the Confederacy has unmistakable, frightening meaning.
To all of this, Trump did not react.
Finally on Saturday, Trump spoke up to “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.”
But it hasn’t. It went on for far too long, in the past. Murderous gangs marched with torches, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, and lynched people. That is no longer familiar, however, and its resurgence – together with murder and beatings – has shocked the country.
Trump’s statement, by contrast, gave comfort to the people who caused this. Andrew Anglin, editor of the prominent neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, wrote: “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. […] He said he loves us all. […] No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
Trump’s advisors tried to spin his “many sides” statement on television talk shows, suggesting that he did mean to refer to far-right extremism, and Trump allies such as Vice President Mike Pence, spoke out against white supremacy and Nazism – but Anglin and his fellow extremists were not fooled. Trump does not need help expressing what he thinks.
He has boasted of his ability to speak his mind directly to the American people through Twitter and routinely tweets his opinions at all hour of the day and night. Yet he remained silent on this matter, for two tense days. Trump has stayed uncharacteristically quiet all too often, after notorious attacks against minority groups in the United States. In May, he waited days before responding, after a white supremacist killed two men who tried to defend Muslim women on a train in Oregon. Earlier this month, Trump failed to acknowledge the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota.
Finally, today, Trump stepped to a podium and said about Charlottesville: “Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Too late. The president’s failure to name the hate-driven movement which views him as a source of inspiration only legitimized their belief that he is on their side. White nationalist leader Richard Spencer dismissed Trump’s statement, saying “The statement today was more ‘kumbaya’ nonsense,” and, “I don’t think that Donald Trump is a dumb person, and only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
As Megan Garber pointed out in the Atlantic, Trump left the work of democratic norm setting to others in the wake of the riots – for example, the moving condemnations that came from the mayor of Charlottesville and the governor of Virginia. But such a message from a liberal governor cannot have nearly the impact that it would have, coming from the President of the United States – a man who has spent years inviting these extreme views into the public square.