Cupp: Wow, does Trump have an awful opinion of his own voters

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Story highlights

  • SE Cupp: In defending the alt-right protesters, the President appears to be -- mistakenly -- conflating them with his base
  • He will not change direction until the majority of his voters finally tell him that he's wrong, she says

S.E. Cupp is a CNN political commentator and the host of an upcoming HLN prime-time program covering contemporary issues. It debuts at 7 p.m. ET, August 21. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)Criticized by conservatives and liberals, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and virtually everyone in between, President Donald Trump is finding few defenders of his own renewed defense of white nationalist protesters who turned violent on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia.

But no amount of scolding from Republicans and Democrats in Washington, the media, or even some of his own advisers will likely deter Trump from his indefensible message. Only when Trump voters themselves decide they do not want to be lumped in with neo-Nazis and white supremacists will the tide turn away from this horrifying and disturbing crisis of national conscience.
From the moment Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, it was clear his campaign was going to be one that wrapped its arms around a certain segment of the population.
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    We learned more about this group as the months ticked on -- they were largely white and economically disenfranchised. They felt left behind by both parties, dismissed by elites for their social and cultural values. Trump, without question, got these voters in ways no other candidate from either party did.
    But what was unclear was whether or not Trump was also trying to wrap his arms around a smaller, deeply disturbing pocket of the fringe right: white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
    There were strange winks and nods to this small cohort of repugnant hatemongers throughout the campaign. Trump first pretended not to be aware of white supremacist David Duke, and had trouble disavowing Duke's praise for Trump. He tweeted anti-Semitic artwork, and at least one campaign ad was itself decried as anti-Semitic.
    And of course, there was his loyalty to Breitbart, a website that's become a safe haven for alt-right, anti-Semitic, nationalist, homophobic and sexist points of view, and whose CEO Steve Bannon was promptly given a prominent role in the new President's White House.
    But for all those disturbing patterns, it wasn't completely clear if Trump was merely tolerating the support of radical white nationalists to get through the election, or if he was tacitly defending them.
    Tuesday's press conference washed away any remaining ambiguity.
    After initially making moral equivalencies between neo-Nazis in Charlottesville -- one of whom killed a young woman and injured 19 -- and the protesters who were there to condemn them, two days later he was finally pressured to state in no uncertain terms that "racism is evil," a presumably uncontroversial admission for nearly anyone else in a leadership position.
    But on Tuesday, he took it all back. Clearly resentful of that pressure to fix his initial statements, an angry Trump made it clear that he will defend the absolute worst among us, at the expense of even a murdered young woman.
    The question many are asking is why? What would any President gain by standing up for neo-Nazis, a group that has been universally condemned for seven decades? Surely, it must mean he agrees with them.
    I don't think that's it, though.
    Let's start with the view of some that Trump is a fascist. This would presume he's got any guiding political principles at all, and I think it's clear he does not. So we can set that assumption aside. His is a politics of transaction -- he will be whatever he needs to be to get whatever he wants. Ascribing to him anything deeper is, frankly, giving him too much credit.
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    Let's next assume, as others do, that he's just a guy who's possibly got deep-seated white nationalist impulses that make him hate minorities, women and Jews. It's easy to look at some of his rhetoric and even his policies and say that must be true. But both in his personal, business and political life, he has surrounded himself with with all manner of people, including minorities, women and Jews.
    I think the only explanation for Trump's continued loyalty to the alt-right, is that he thinks that's his base.
    Let me be very clear -- I do not believe that all Trump voters are white nationalists. In fact, of the dozens of Trump voters I know personally, not one would want the President to defend neo-Nazis in their name. Of the hundreds of Trump voters I've met, not one ever brought up white nationalist ideas as a reason they voted for him.
    Likewise, Trump surrogates for months have insisted that calling Trump voters racist and bigots is unfair.
    But Trump must think that the anger that drives the majority of his voters is the same kind of anger that drives the white nationalist movement, and that unequivocally disavowing the latter would betray the former.
    He appears to either not understand or not want to believe that the economic frustrations of the depressed white lower-middle class have little to do with notions of ethnic cleansing and superior races.
    While many Trump voters are indeed angry about a broken immigration system, it's not out of racial hatred, but economic insecurity. The average Trump voter is not at all concerned that Jews will "replace" them, as the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanted. If Trump thinks his base is the far right extremists that descended on Charlottesville -- boy does he have an awful opinion of his own voters.
    It should not be difficult to tell apparent neo-Nazis like James Fields, the man arrested in the Charlottesville killing, and white supremacists like David Duke: "I do not want your votes. I do not want your support. I do not speak for you, and I am not your friend."
    But if Trump mistakenly thinks all his voters are driven by the same kind of anger and hatred, it might just be the only explanation as to why he hasn't said those words to them, and doesn't plan on it. It will only be when the majority of Trump voters finally tell him that he's wrong -- words most have yet to utter thus far -- that he might actually change direction.