WASHINGTON – The movement away from President Donald Trump had become a stampede.
Republican lawmakers from Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to lowly backbenchers dissociated themselves from the president for saying there were “very fine people” marching among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.
Trump disbanded his corporate advisory panels after eight members quit in protest of his moral parallels between white supremacists and those who opposed them.
The two living former Republican presidents, military leaders and even the vice president issued statements making plain their differences with Trump. Condemnations poured in from the conservative prime minister of Britain and from Germany, where they know what comes of coddling Nazis.
On Wednesday morning, I entered the echo chamber, watching all three hours of “Fox & Friends” – Trump’s favorite show, to judge from his tweets – to see if the hosts would defend Trump even after he aligned himself with white supremacists. It was a delicate task – some parts of Fox News Channel had already gone wobbly, with Kat Timpf calling Trump’s remarks “disgusting” – but Trump’s “Fox & Friends” friends gave it a try.
Host Steve Doocy began the 6 a.m. hour by saying Trump’s real “mistake” was to take questions from reporters. He figured the president “was just trying to be very careful” in his remarks, and Doocy read out White House talking points (“The president was entirely correct … “)
Host Todd Piro allowed that Trump’s comments “may not have been the smartest,” but said, “He could cure cancer tomorrow and other people in the media are going to attack him.”
Another host, Abby Huntsman, joined in to say that although this was a “missed opportunity” for Trump to “stand up a little stronger” against hate groups, some people “are going to hate on this president” anyway.
The hosts tried mightily to change the subject from Trump’s unconscionable defense of neo-Nazis to his claim that those taking down statues of “Confederate heroes” (Doocy’s phrase) would soon attack George Washington.
“Hmm, interesting point there,” said Huntsman, introducing her “panel” to “debate” this phony issue.
First came Johns Hopkins professor Wendy Osefo. She replied that the issue was “beyond monuments” and more about Nazis killing and beating people. “This is not talking points,” she said. “This is human life.”
Huntsman turned to Gianno Caldwell, a black Republican and reliable Trump defender. “I mean, there are good people on both sides of this debate,” she coaxed.
Caldwell wasn’t having it: “President Trump, our president, has literally betrayed the conscience of our country, the very moral fabric in which we’ve made progress when it comes to race relations in America. He’s failed us. … Mr. President, good people don’t pal around with Nazis and white supremacists.”
Huntsman, after trying one more time to talk about statues, gave up: “You know, it’s a tough debate.”
It’s not a tough debate. It’s not a debate at all. There are Nazis, and there are the rest of us.
It was obscene and unthinkable that the president of the United States let white supremacists know it’s OK to hold and act on their hateful views. In defending Trump, Fox is further encouraging these racists to crawl out from under their rocks and preach in the open.
A Huffington Post/YouGov poll shows the effect. Only 22 percent think Trump is opposed to white nationalism. And when the president winks at racism, more racists are emboldened. Among Trump supporters, 48 percent think the white nationalists in Charlottesville were mostly right or went too far but have a point. Half of Trump supporters, thus given the green light by the president, express sympathy for white nationalists. That is, to coin a term, deplorable.
But it’s happening. In the 7 a.m. hour, Trump’s Fox friends continued their Trump defense.
“Not everyone there was out to hurt someone or was evil,” Huntsman said, adding that, even so, it’s “incredibly important” to call out bigotry and hatred.
“Which he did,” Doocy interjected.
“Which he did,” Huntsman agreed.
To their credit, the hosts interviewed, near the end of the show, conservative pundit Rich Lowry, with a dissent. When Doocy again raised the prospect of Washington becoming the next victim after Robert E. Lee, Lowry explained that “there’s a huge historical and moral difference” between the first president and the Confederate commander. Lowry said Lee probably would have wanted his statue taken down, because “he wanted to put the Civil War behind us and focus on national unity.”
Would that Trump and his “friends” could do the same.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.