Donald Trump is who we thought he was.
After a campaign gestated in birtherism, Trump was slow to condemn the likes of white supremacist David Duke, routinely spoke in coded racial language to energize a segment of people angry about the changing face of the country and condoned violence against those who disagreed with him, Trump, over the last four days, has proven that he is that same person as president.
And that person is the opposite of a leader. And that person is dangerous to this country’s well-being.
Trump’s comments at a press availability at Trump Tower on Tuesday not only revealed, again, his remarkable blindness to the racial history and realities of this country, but also showed his willingness to stake out morally indefensible positions as the result of personal pique.
Three days after insisting that the blame for the Charlottesville protests spurred by neo-Nazis and white supremacists lay “on many sides,” and just a day removed from a more fulsome condemnation of those groups, Trump returned to his original position – that this was a situation where both sides were wrong and the only people who disagreed with that were the fake news media.
“I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it,” Trump lectured the assembled reporters. “And you have – you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.”
And, again: “I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either.”
And, again: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to (it).”
That view is factually inaccurate. Only one side with one belief system was involved in a speeding car being rammed into a group of counter-protesters – an incident that left one woman dead and more than a dozen others injured. Only one group in Charlottesville on Saturday bases their entire “belief” system on the inferiority of other people because of their race or religion. Only one group on Saturday speaks admiringly of a murderous dictator who killed millions.
Trump knows this. He is not dumb. He is not unfamiliar with history. And the fact that he knows it and, therefore, knows what he’s doing with this faux attempt at moral relativism makes him all the more dangerous. Because it means he understands the power of grievance, the power of rewriting history – or the present – to fit into a contorted ideology that catalyzes hate into political power.
Take Trump’s attempt to make a slippery slope argument about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.
“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you all – you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Equating the first president of the United States with a Confederate general who led a rebellion against his country is, um, not intellectually honest. (Trump knows that.)
Know who liked Trump’s relativism on Robert E. Lee? None other than Duke, perhaps the most high-profile white supremacist in the country. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” Duke tweeted, with a link to a clip in which Trump made the Robert E. Lee - George Washington comparison.
When David Duke is praising you, it might be time to re-examine what you’re doing with your life.
What Trump has done with the campaign he ran and his unwillingness to change a single thing as President – as illustrated starkly in this series of comments about Charlottesville – is provide cover for Duke and all of his hate-filled compadres. “The President said both sides do it! The left is just as intolerant as we are!” they will croon.
What Trump has done over the past four days – and especially what he said on Tuesday at Trump Tower – ensures that the hate-mongers who protested in Charlottesville will be emboldened. They will view the ambiguity of blame from Trump as a win, as a stamp of approval by which they can grow their efforts to divide us and bring out the darkest parts of our humanity.
That outcome is more than a failure of political leadership by Trump. It is a failure of moral leadership.
It is impossible – given the last two years of Trump – to conclude he is simply fumbling his way around on issues of race, gender and ethnic heritage. The mountain of evidence gathered suggests just the opposite: That he is purposely saying and doing things to make murky moral questions that should be crystal clear. And why is he doing it? For political gain.
That is the opposite of what being president of the United States should be. Hell, it’s the opposite of what being a citizen of this country should be.
What Trump is doing is dangerous – for our politics and for our moral fiber. To condone white supremacists by insisting there are two sides to every coin is to take us back decades in our understanding of each other. It is to undo decades worth of progress toward a freer and better country for all people.
To do so purposely to score political points or stick it in the eye of your supposed media enemies is, frankly, despicable.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Trump spoke at Trump Tower.