Over the weekend, as is now well known, white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In actuality, the gathering was effectively a convention for America’s top neo-Nazis, from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke to alt-right luminary Richard Spencer. What happened next was unsurprising:
At their Friday night rally at the University of Virginia, the white nationalists brandished torches and chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans, including “blood and soil” (an English rendering of the Nazi “blut und boden”) and “Jews will not replace us” — all crafted to cast Jews as foreign interlopers who need to be expunged. The attendees proudly displayed giant swastikas and wore shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. One banner read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”
“The truth is,” Duke told a large crowd Saturday, “the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause.” Addressing another group, Richard Spencer mocked Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Mike Signer. “Little Mayor Signer — ‘See-ner’ — how do you pronounce this little creep’s name?” Spencer asked. The crowd responded by chanting, “Jew, Jew, Jew.” In TV interviews, attendees were not shy about their anti-Semitism.
"The fucking Jew-lovers are gassing us," one neo-Nazi marcher told Fox News earlier, before claiming he "survived genocide" when he was 6. pic.twitter.com/0PINRnozzg
— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) August 12, 2017
Duke explicitly outlined the motive of the rally: “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump, and that’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back and that’s what we gotta do.” Trump, meanwhile, refused to repudiate the hate propagated in his name, even as a neo-Nazi drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.
First, Trump said nothing. Then, after outcry, he condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” equating the neo-Nazi hate with those protesting it (and murdered for doing so). He didn’t even utter the word “anti-Semitism,” let alone call it out. Neo-Nazis exalted in his empty words. As criticism mounted, Trump reappeared on Monday afternoon to read a quick scripted statement: “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”
But on Tuesday, Trump essentially disavowed that begrudging pronouncement. Asked about Charlottesville by reporters, the president backtracked, equated the neo-Nazis with their opposition, and claimed that many of those attending the bigoted demonstrations captained by renowned racists were “very fine people”:
I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you had, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent…
Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides… [Y]ou had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
Essentially, Trump had harsher words for the media and the left for criticizing his racist and anti-Semitic supporters than he did for the bigots themselves. “If you look, they were people protesting very quietly, the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he said of the white supremacists, who chanted “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” while carrying torches.
It wasn’t just the president’s opposition that was horrified by his dissembling about naked bigotry on American soil:
No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) August 16, 2017
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 15, 2017
Mr. President,you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame.They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain 5/6
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 15, 2017
There's no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate& bigotry. The President of the United States should say so
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 16, 2017
We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) August 15, 2017
The Republican party’s leading lights offered no defense of Trump’s remarks, because there is no defense. There is literally no simpler task in American politics than condemning neo-Nazis. Whether Trump is refusing to do so out of pride, ignorance, or malice, is immaterial. He failed the most basic test of moral and political decency, retook the test, and failed it again. The why of it is irrelevant. The fact of it remains—and stains.