WASHINGTON – It’s a case of being careful what you wish for.
Critics left, right and center panned President Donald Trump for his initial refusal to denounce the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, one of whom allegedly drove his car into counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring 19. When Trump finally gave a canned and grudging disavowal of white supremacists, he was urged anew to say more, to be presidential, to bring the nation together.
Well, late Tuesday, Trump said more and told the nation what he really thought. It was downright ugly.
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There, from Trump Tower in New York, was the president of the United States declaring that those protesting against Nazis were … the same as Nazis. “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that,” said Trump.
Nobody wants to say that because there is – and there can be – no moral equivalence between Nazis and those who oppose Nazis. But Trump saw them as equal. He said the anti-Nazi demonstrators didn’t have a permit and “were very, very violent.” Trump maintained that those marching with the white supremacists have been treated “absolutely unfairly” by the press, and there “were very fine people, on both sides.”
Trump was not done with his apology for white supremacists. He went on to endorse the cause that brought these racists, David Duke among them, to Charlottesville: the Confederacy. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups,” the president said. “But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”
Right. The man who led an army against the United States. “So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down,” Trump went on. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Thus did Trump, after putting Nazis on the same moral plane as anti-Nazis, put the father of our country and the author of the Declaration of Independence on the same moral plane as two men who made war on America. Duke and white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer applauded Trump’s performance.
The nationalist-turned-presidential-adviser Stephen Bannon used to say that the publishing outfit he led, Breitbart, was a “platform for the alt-right,” a euphemism for white nationalists and far-right extremists. But now there is a new platform for the alt-right in America: the White House.
It looks more and more like the White Nationalist House.
Trump, who this week retweeted an “alt-right” conspiracy theorist and ally of white supremacists, continues to employ in his White House not just Bannon and Stephen Miller, two darlings of the alt-right, but also Sebastian Gorka, who uses the platform to defend the embattled white man.
“It’s this constant, ‘Oh, it’s the white man. It’s the white supremacists. That’s the problem.’ No, it isn’t,” Gorka said in an interview with Breitbart days before the Charlottesville mayhem. “Go to the Middle East, and tell me what the real problem is today.” At an inaugural ball in January, Gorka wore a medal from the Hungarian nationalist organization Vitezi Rend, a longtime anti-Semitic group that claimed Gorka as one of its own. (He denies it.)
It’s more than words. The administration proposed eliminating the “Countering Violent Extremism” program; officials argued that the effort should target only Islamist radicalization, not right-wing extremism. In June, the Trump administration canceled a grant to a group called Life After Hate, which rehabilitates neo-Nazis. “At a time when this is the biggest threat in our country, to pull funding from the only organization in the United States helping people disengage from this is pretty suspect to me,” the group’s co-founder Christian Picciolini told me.
And now we have the spectacle of the president defending the character and motives of the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville.
Trump, who has issued scores of tweets without benefit of accurate information, explained his initial unwillingness to single out the white supremacist who drove into a crowd of demonstrators: “Before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”
Trump, who has criticized others for failing to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” declined to call the incident terrorism.
Asked about the culpability of the “alt-right” in the Charlottesville attack, Trump replied: “Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging them?”
Political violence, by anybody, is wrong. But to equate neo-Nazis with those who oppose them is, even for our alt-right president, a new low.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.