Donald Trump, who despite everything remains President of the United States, is rarely one to mince his words. This is, after all, the man who spent the last fortnight playing a kind of nuclear footsie on Twitter with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. The Donald's diplomacy, frequently delivered in one hundred and forty characters or fewer, exhibits all the subtlety and nuance of a napalm enema.
Which makes his mealy-mouthed response to Saturday night's tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, all the more staggering.
The man who recently threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was suddenly full of platitudes. His limp condemnation of “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” was that of a career politician. It was Jeremy Corbyn on Venezuela. It was ‘All Lives Matter’. Only one side consisted of Neo-Nazi groups and the KKK (including such delightful individuals as David Duke and Richard Spencer), and it seems pretty clear that they were the ones espousing the ‘bigotry’ and ‘hatred’ mentioned by Trump.
Indeed many on the left take issue with the fact that such a protest, which included people waving swastikas in 2017 America, was even allowed to take place. However, ‘freedom of assembly’ means just that, whether those involved are waving pride flags or the cross of Nazism. Their politics may be beyond contemptible, but it is not beyond the protection of the United States Constitution.
The issue for the incumbent of the Oval Office arises when a legitimate protest against the removal of historical statues erupts into violence and acts of domestic terrorism. Video footage showed the horrifying incident in which someone drove a car into a crowd of anti-Nazi protesters, killing one and wounding at least nineteen others.
With an administration known for its directness suddenly descending into woolliness, it’s worth asking why Trump, who condemned similar atrocities in London, Paris and Nice, failed to do so after Charlottesville. The answer, of course, is clear for everyone to see.
Back on election night CNN political analyst Van Jones called Trump’s victory a ‘whitelash’. Trump’s ‘America First’ outlook and zealously nationalist rhetoric attracts the type of people who were parading round Charlottesville on Saturday. Former KKK leader David Duke said that the protesters were “going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back”.
You might recall that this is not the first time that Trump’s relationship with Duke has landed him in hot water. On February 28th 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump if he would reject Duke’s endorsement of him for President. Trump’s squirming response was cut from the same cloth as his response to Charlottesville.
In full, the then-candidate Trump said: “Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.”
Given that records of Trump speaking about Duke go all the way back to 1991, it’s perhaps a little hard to believe.
Trump’s presidency is therefore inextricably linked to Duke and other white nationalists. Few presidents seeking a second term wish to anger their base, but few presidents have the sort of base that Trump relied upon in 2016. The last week has seen the dichotomy of The Donald displayed in full. The apparent strongman president, willing to get tough with North Korea, was reduced to uttering spineless platitudes when faced with the prospect of having to condemn his supporters. Trump’s effective silence and ‘whataboutism’ is especially damning when you consider that two-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (neither of whom could be described as progressive in regards to American race relations) unequivocally condemned white nationalist bigotry and violence. Trump’s inability to come out and condemn a hate crime and act of domestic terrorism committed by one of his own supporters without referring to ‘both sides’ is hardly surprising, but no less cowardly as a result.