WASHINGTON – No one should have been surprised to see President Donald Trump playing footsie with racists. He’s been doing it for years.
On Saturday, when Trump could not bring himself to condemn white supremacists for the Charlottesville tragedy, he was just being consistent: He often has shown empathy for white racial grievance.
After all, who was the most prominent voice of birtherism, the unfounded and blatantly racist challenge to President Barack Obama’s legitimacy? Who exclaimed on Twitter in 2014 that “you won’t see another black president for generations” because of Obama’s performance? Who has disseminated false, racially charged “statistics” about black crime?
Trump made a rare climb-down on Monday, specifically condemning violence by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. But his initial reaction on Saturday – after a car, allegedly driven by a young Nazi sympathizer, plowed into a crowd of demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring many others – was to denounce “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
In fact, there were just two sides in Charlottesville: militant white nationalists, including former Klan leader David Duke and neo-Nazis, who had descended in large numbers; and counter-protesters who came out to tell the assembled racist horde to get lost. Trump’s first statement seemed to make no moral distinction.
Prominent Republicans quickly took the president to task for his disgraceful equivocation. “Very important for the nation to hear @potus describe events in #Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by #whitesupremacists,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Twitter. “I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home,” wrote Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Those are stirring words, gentlemen, but where have you been hiding all this righteousness? Were you not paying attention when then-candidate Trump attacked a federal judge for his Mexican-American heritage and demeaned a Gold Star mother and father for their Muslim faith? Did you not hear the screech of white grievance at his campaign rallies, often not so much a dog whistle as a blaring siren?
I might take all the GOP breast-beating more seriously if the party would abandon its state-by-state campaign to impose restrictive election laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-American and Hispanic voters.
In contrast to the Republican reaction, the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website was quite pleased with Trump’s initial comment. “He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together,” wrote the racist, anti-Semitic site’s founder. “No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
One prominent African-American who gave the Trump administration a chance – Kenneth Frazier, chief executive of the giant Merck pharmaceutical company – decided Monday morning that he’d had enough, resigning in protest from Trump’s advisory American Manufacturing Council. Trump shot back on Twitter that now Frazier “will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
Note that a personal slight provoked a sharp, speedy, all-caps response. Yet even in the Monday statement, Trump did not call Saturday’s horror an act of domestic terrorism.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Charlottesville incident was, indeed, an act of terrorism, and that the Justice Department has opened a hate crime investigation to ascertain whether others may have been involved. Reflect for a moment on how Trump’s “many sides” comment made Sessions, of all people, look like some kind of civil rights hero.
There are those who see Trump’s initial reluctance to denounce white-power groups as nothing but politics – an appeal to white voters who are anxious about growing diversity. Yet the president’s Monday reversal was clearly a political calculation. I believe what we heard Saturday was simply a genuine first reaction.
In 1973, Trump and his father were sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to African-Americans. He said in a 1989 interview that “a well-educated black” has an advantage in the job market – a victimhood claim refuted by academic studies and his own record of not having minorities in key posts at the Trump Organization. He maintained as recently as last October that the “Central Park Five” – four African-American men and one Latino – were guilty of a brutal 1989 rape, despite definitive DNA evidence that exonerated them years ago.
Trump has called himself the “least racist person on earth.” There is no end to the man’s lies.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.