Here are some of the many insults that Donald Trump has ladled out over the years. On Senator John McCain: ‘He’s not a war hero.’ On Senator Rand Paul: ‘I never attacked his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.’ On Jeb Bush: ‘He’s an embarrassment to his family.’ On Jeb Bush’s family: ‘Do we really need another Bush in the White House—we have had enough of them.’ On Hillary Clinton: ‘Such a nasty woman.’ On Rosie O’Donnell: ‘I’d like to take some money out of her fat-ass pockets.’ On Barack Obama: ‘He’s the founder of Isis.’
Yet Trump’s response to last weekend’s racist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia—an idiots’ Woodstock of warmed-over Ku Klux Klan bigots, arm-thrusting neo-Nazis, historically illiterate neo-Confederates, and trolls who crunch on bugs in the darkest corners of the Internet; a target for mockery if ever there was one—was uncharacteristically passive. He began by denouncing the ‘hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides‘. This was condemned by some pundits as a cop-out, but it was nothing of the sort: black-masked ‘antifa’ demonstrators in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere have been smashing cars and throwing punches for months now. Both fringe-left and fringe-right thugs are escalating off each other’s violence, creating a political climate that at times feels like 1930s Spain in miniature. Trump was right to acknowledge this.
Where he fell short was in his refusal to identify the Charlottesville marchers as white supremacists and condemn them full-throatedly. In fact, he initially didn’t broach the subject of race at all, choosing instead to shoehorn the chaos into his preexisting political templates, calling for a restoration of ‘law and order’ and bragging about the growing economy. He was more forthright in a subsequent address on Monday, stating that ‘racism is evil’ and calling out ‘repugnant’ hate groups, but it felt tardy and, at only five minutes long, too small for the moment.
What transpired in Charlottesville prodded at the darkest part of America’s psyche: its history of racism against blacks, which culminated in a civil war that killed more people than any other conflict in our short history. Forgotten in the brouhaha over the weekend was the reason those white nationalists mobilised: they were defending a local statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, that some were advocating be torn down. The South is dotted with such tributes to the lost cause. For years I lived on a street in Northern Virginia named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. And it was only two years ago that the Confederate flag was lowered for the last time over the South Carolina statehouse. The line between history and nostalgia, between ‘defeated peoples build statues’ and ‘victory should have been ours,’ can be a difficult one to tease out.
Whether he liked it or not, Trump needed to jump into that historical briar patch, if only because it undergirds the seemingly fleeting violence of a few hundred white supremacists. On that count he failed. But he also declined to confront what’s become a very modern problem. Not only are recruitment efforts by American racist groups surging, but the so-called alt-right, a halfway house between white nationalism and political conservatism, has gained traction over the past couple years, especially among the young. Both groups see Trump as an inspiration and identify with his calls for tougher immigration controls and more police. That hardly makes those positions bigoted—Charlottesville must not be used to stigmatise legitimate policy debates—but it does put the onus on Trump to confront these disturbing trends, call them out, repudiate them.
That means giving a real speech that rises to the occasion and acknowledges our past. It also means putting to good use that motor mouth of his. Right now white supremacists are lauding Trump for going easy on them. A little of his trademark venom in their direction, some scorn for the alt-right, too, could dim their lustre, especially since many of them view him as a hero. Now is the time for your cheap-seats heckling, Mr. President. And if he wants to lump in the antifa vandals, there’s one term that’s universally applicable to all these extremists. It’s the one he used to describe the terrorists who attacked the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester: ‘evil losers.’
Matt Purple is the deputy editor for Rare Politics