By Christoph Scheuermann
There has never before been a U.S. president who trivialized the violence and racism of neo-Nazis. For many Republicans, Donald Trump has now gone too far. The populist leader has become more isolated than ever before — in the world and inside his own party.
At the end of a bloody weekend, after one woman had died and several other people had been injured, Christopher Cantwell sat down in a hotel room and said: “I’d say it was worth it.” A neo-Nazi who rails against blacks, Jews and immigrants, Cantwell is one of the organizers behind the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — and last week, he traveled to Virginia ostensibly to protest the dismantling of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Some of Cantwell’s comrades wore steel helmets and homemade shields made of wood or plastic, making them look like an army of second-rate mercenaries.
Cantwell seemed euphoric as he showed a Vice News reporter, on camera, the weapons that he carried with him. An automatic rifle, two pistols in his belt and a third in an ankle holster, and a knife. Oh, and “I actually have another AK in that bag over there,” Cantwell says. “You lose track of your fucking guns, huh?”
Those who may still have doubts as to how fanatic, how potentially violent the right wing has become in the United States should take the time to watch the Vice News piece. It shows white nationalists with torches on the eve of the demonstration: private militias in camouflage, apparently armed with automatic weapons, men waving swastika flags, anti-Semites, homophobes and fascists from across the country. They all swarmed into the liberal university town in rural Virginia.
It was a bellowing, braying mob of 500 right wingers, the largest collection of nationalists the U.S. had seen in years. A demonstration of hate, so obviously full of hostility and resentment that there could be no doubts about who was marching through the streets of Charlottesville. And then a car sped into a group of counterdemonstrators, driven by a right-wing supporter. One woman died, a 32-year-old legal assistant from Charlottesville named Heather Heyer, and 19 others were injured. The fanaticism and violence was so evident that it should have been clear to every politician that the only possible response was a clear condemnation of right-wing horror.
But what did U.S. President Donald Trump do? After the white nationalist rally reached its violent conclusion on Saturday, he said from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, that “many sides” had been responsible for the escalation. According to Trump, it wasn’t just the Nazis, but also the counterdemonstrators who had contributed to the violence. He placed right-wing radicals and their opponents on the same moral plain. What happened in Charlottesville was a catastrophe, but Trump quickly transformed it into a political scandal — into an unforgivable disgrace to the office he holds.
Relativizing Neo-Nazi Violence
It took him until Monday to read out a carefully formulated statement in which he condemned hate, fanaticism and violence and spoke of the equality of all before the law and God and of the love and unity of all Americans. He also explicitly condemned the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white nationalists. His new Chief of Staff John Kelly apparently had to convince him to make that statement. But then, one day later, he took it all back and made the situation even worse.
Since then, all Democrats and some Republicans agree that Trump has gone too far. A president who relativizes Nazi violence and who knowingly and intentionally seeks to show solidarity with the right-wing fringe is a national disgrace. Even those closest to Trump are shocked and conservatives are seeking to distance themselves from Trump in numbers not previously seen. And it is all because Trump decided to hold a spontaneous press conference.
When Trump appeared before the press in the foyer of the Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday, the expectation was that he would speak about his plans for investing in American infrastructure. His advisers had indicated it would be just a brief statement. But Trump seemed agitated.
Earlier, many journalists had criticized him for the apparent lack of enthusiasm he had shown in condemning the KKK and other nationalists. The New Yorker had written in a satirical piece that Trump seemed like a kidnapping victim in a hostage video as he read his statement from the teleprompter. And Trump was furious with the press for not showing the appropriate respect for his efforts. Before his impromptu press conference, he had tweeted that the “#Fake News Media will never be satisfied … truly bad people!”
In the answers he then gave to questions from reporters — more of a fit of rage than a press conference — he blasted the so-called “alt-left,” saying it was just as bad as the white supremacists, many of whom refer to themselves as the “alt-right.” It was a comment that didn’t just demonize the counterdemonstrators, it also trivialized the violence displayed by the neo-Nazis. Trump spoke of “blame on both sides” and claimed that among the hate-filled white nationalists and anti-Semites, there were also many people who were simply there to peacefully protest the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee. The press conference lasted just over 20 minutes, but by the time it had ended, it was clear that the president was indeed guilty of playing down the actions of neo-Nazis.
Two former presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, issued a joint statement condemning hatred “in all forms.” Five of the country’s top military leaders saw a need to issue clear statements condemning racism, in direct opposition to their commander-in-chief.
‘A National Disgrace’
Former CIA head John Brennan said Trump’s words were “a national disgrace,” calling them “ugly and dangerous.” Scott Taylor, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, spoke of “a failure of leadership, which starts at the top, with him.” Republican Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina said Trump’s “moral authority is compromised.”
Even hard-bitten television journalists reacted with disbelief. “Wow,” gasped CNN anchor Jake Tapper immediately after airing the Trump press conference. Chuck Todd of MSNBC said: “What I just saw gave me the wrong kind of chills.” Even on Fox News, Trump’s favorite broadcaster, there was talk of “moral bankruptcy.”
Trump is the first president to offer his protection to right-wing extremists, and he has lost the ability to distinguish between good and evil — if he ever possessed it in the first place. Such a shortcoming would be horrific in any political leader, but the U.S. president is more than just another head of state. He sets an example for the entire world, particularly when it comes to fighting hate and fanaticism in his own country.
No politician should find it difficult to condemn right-wing violence, especially after human life has been lost. But it has now become apparent that a traumatized United States cannot look to the White House for comfort in its time of need. Indeed, it has been left to a former president to fill the gap.
Following the events in Charlottesville, Barack Obama tweeted a quote from Nelson Mandela in direct response to the words of Donald Trump. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion …” The tweet included a picture of a smiling Obama looking at four small children in a window. The tweet has since been liked over 4.3 million times, a new record on the social media platform.
Americans haven’t forgotten how Obama responded to the shooting in a Charleston church two years ago. Nine people died in the attack, which saw a white nationalist open fire on black congregants. At the memorial, Obama began speaking of grace, paused briefly, and then began singing “Amazing Grace.” It was a deeply moving moment, but it was also a message to his people that in moments of profound grief, nobody is alone and everyone stands together. It is the kind of gesture that the American people expect from their president — a hug, consolation.
Trump did exactly the opposite. He sowed hate instead of reconciliation. Because he was angry. Because he thought he had been misunderstood. Because he wanted to deliver a decisive “fuck you” to his opponents and, especially, to the journalists who he believes only ever criticize him. The most powerful man in the world shied away like a Nazi apologist from identifying the source of evil — and this in a country that once helped defeat Adolf Hitler. Such a thing has never before been seen in America, a country that is justifiably proud of the role it played in World War II.
If there was a need to prove that racism — 150 years after the end of slavery — remains just as dangerous and present as a cancerous tumor, Trump provided it on Tuesday. Race relations in America are more strained than they have been for quite some time.
Discrimination against African-Americans remains ubiquitous. Blacks are the victims of police violence more often than whites and make up a disproportionately large share of the country’s prison population. Racism still casts a vast shadow over the United States of America, even 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
And it’s not just garden variety racism that Trump sowed during his campaign and is harvesting now, but hatred for all minority groups. Since 2015, the number of explicitly Islamophobic groups has tripled, according to statistics compiled by the human-rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center. Anti-Semitic attacks have risen as have assaults on Muslims and mosques.
But the debate over statues of Confederate Civil War heroes has only just begun. There are over 700 such monuments in the country and they have become symbols for centuries of slavery, a period of its history that America has never adequately confronted and for which no one has ever apologized. Many cities are now afraid of seeing conflicts like the one in Charlottesville. Indeed, Baltimore this week quickly removed four monuments overnight.
Aggressive and Loaded with Prejudice
With his comments, Trump has remained true to his past. As far back as the early 1970s, Trump and his father were sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to black tenants in New York. In 1989, when four blacks and one Hispanic teenager were suspected of having raped a female jogger in Central Park, Trump spent $85,000 on newspaper ads demanding the reintroduction of the death penalty in New York.
He has always been aggressive and loaded with prejudice, and he has displayed those characteristics more openly than most. In the 1980s, when Trump operated casinos in Atlantic City, black employees allegedly had to hide from their boss as soon as he walked onto the floor, says one worker. “Black guys counting my money! I hate it,” he once said, according to a 1991 book about Trump.
Later came his passionate hatred for Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, and his unfounded claims that Obama had been born abroad and was thus not entitled to be in the White House. When he himself became a candidate, he waffled when asked if he would distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan. His comments this week are consistent with a man who feels more comfortable in the company of right-wing conspiracy theorists, racists and anti-Semites than he does with his own party allies.
According to one survey, only 27 percent of Americans believe that Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville was appropriate. It is also true, however, that 59 percent of Republicans thought he acquitted himself well. Trump’s base is impressed.
Following Trump’s disastrous press conference on Tuesday, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists.” Right-wing radical provocateur Richard Spencer wrote: “Really proud of him.” Other members of the “alt-right” scene are likewise pleased that their president took on the hated left. “It energized the base” said Mike Cernovich, one of the Twitter stars of the new right.
It has seldom been more obvious just how unfit Trump is for his office and how helplessly he acts. This week has shown that the president, whose job it is to unify his country in difficult times, has driven the wedge even deeper into an already apprehensive and uneasy society.
His misguidedness has political consequences. Few in Washington still believe that his presidency will end well. Proximity to the presidency is now considered by many to be risky or even toxic. On Wednesday morning, American broadcasters tried in vain to find Republicans willing to defend him on air.
The CEOs of large American companies from Merck to Campbell Soup left Trump’s manufacturing advisory council, in part because of the risk that the association with Trump might become bad for business. In a tweet, Trump called them “grandstanders” and said that he had many other business leaders ready to take their places. But when more business leaders left the council on Wednesday, he announced on Twitter that he was disbanding it.
A Serious Dilemma for Republicans
The chasm between Trump and the Republican mainstream has also become deeper. Allies are stunned at their president’s willingness to protect violent racists and many have begun doubting whether they can continue working for this president. Gary Cohn, Trump’s Jewish economic advisor, is reportedly disgusted and upset by the president’s comments — as are many others in the White House.
Powerful Republicans from Mitt Romney to Paul Ryan have criticized Trump. And his ill-considered comments have also put off many of those he will soon badly need to push his budget through congress and to pass signature projects such as tax reform.
The problem is that conservatives have been unable to find a way out of the Faustian bargain that they made with Trump. If they let him fall, they are almost certain to suffer mightily in midterm elections next autumn. But the party has also become increasingly concerned that there is no way to control this president — not even with John Kelly. Kelly has been Trump’s chief of staff for three weeks now and, as a former four-star general, enjoys a reputation for being exacting and independent and as a person who can impose discipline even under the most chaotic of conditions. Last week, though, the newsmagazine Time put Kelly on its cover, calling him “Trump’s Last Best Hope.” In Trump’s world, such a thing could prove dangerous for Kelly — because only one person is allowed to be on magazine covers. The boss himself.
Kelly is facing what might be the most difficult challenge of his career. During Trump’s news conference, he stood just a few feet away from the president, his arms crossed, head bowed low and looking like a man who had just realized the risk he had taken by switching from the Department of Homeland Security to the White House. The general appeared to be in a state of shock in the Trump Tower lobby — frozen and stunned. Several advisers had reportedly sought to talk Trump out of appearing before the press. Everyone at the White House knows just how dangerous the president can be when his emotions are high and he goes off script.
Not even his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both of whom are generally considered to be halfway reasonable amid the chaos, were able to exert any influence on him. Ivanka was the first person in the family to distance herself from the racists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. But those who had hoped that the celebrity Jewish couple from New York could restrain the president at least on this issue were once again left disappointed.
The only person who seems pleased by it all is Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist — the very man who helped get Trump into the White House in the first place. He seemed to be bursting with joy on Tuesday when his boss went up against shouting reporters. He shares Trump’s view that both sides need to be held accountable for Charlottesville, and not just the far-right. Bannon feels that Trump couldn’t have done things any better this week. In an interview with the New York Times following Trump’s disastrous press conference, Bannon said: “The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist. Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.” He said the president would ultimately win the battle.
The interview didn’t help him apparently. Early Friday afternoon in Washington, news broke that Bannon was leaving the White House. It is indisputable, however, that Bannon was instrumental in Trump’s rise and helped shape his nativist agenda. And it seems unlikely that his influence on Trump will completely disappear.
To understand Trump’s increasing radicalization, it is necessary to look back to 2011, the year he met Bannon for the first time. At the time, Bannon was a little know right-wing activist and filmmaker while Trump had no political experience and was a real-estate developer and reality television star with falling ratings. A joint acquaintance introduced the two in New York. In his new book “Devil’s Bargain,” which traces Bannon’s rise to become the chief White House ideologist, journalist Joshua Green writes that the two bonded instantly.
Green describes the connection between the two as perfect, at least in the beginning, pairing as it did the sinister strategist with the gifted populist. Bannon may never have controlled the uncontrollable Trump, but he did show him that his convictions, if funneled into concrete policies, could find a large audience.
Bannon seeded Trump with ideas. “He supplied Trump with a fully formed, internally coherent worldview that accommodated Trump’s own feelings about trade and foreign threats,” Green writes. The strategist was also the person who made the issues palatable for Trump that would become hits on the campaign trail: the Muslim ban, the wall along the Mexican border, the threat posed by illegal immigration and the trade war with China. It all jibed well with Trump’s own instincts.
Despite this, or perhaps precisely because of it, there had been frequent rumors that Trump wanted to get rid of his adviser before news of his ousting finally emerged on Friday. Bannon had become more powerful than Trump wanted him to be. Indeed, the president now considers his old companion to be a narcissistic schemer who has fallen under suspicion of leaking internal White house information to the press.
The president’s assessment isn’t entirely wrong. In an interview with the American Prospect magazine this week, Bannon opened up about colleagues in the White House and talked about who he wants to get rid of in the State Department. Those within the more liberal globalist faction inside the administration have heaped pressure on Bannon because of the trade war he wants to instigate with China. He’s despised by Gary Cohn, the chair of the National Economic Council, and by the Treasury Department, as Bannon well knows. “They’re wetting themselves,” he told the magazine.
Trump’s spirits also appear to have been boosted. After his press conference on Tuesday, he seemed at peace with himself and his advisers would later say that he seemed cheerful, almost liberated. He had leveraged a bit of breathing space for himself, which was more important to him than the country he had stirred up with his rhetoric. On Thursday, he tweeted about the “beautiful” statues and monuments from the Civil War era in America and how their removal should not be allowed.
The job of reconciling America has now been left to others, like Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, the victim of the neo-Nazi killer in Charlottesville. “They tried to kill me daughter to shut her up,” Bro said at her daughter’s funeral on Wednesday. “Well, guess what? You just magnified her.” No bitterness or hatred could be detected in her voice and it appears that Bro was the only person in recent days capable of striking the appropriate chord. And it wasn’t the president who found those words, but a mother mourning the death of her daughter.