Donald Trump is a racist with strong white supremacist leanings, impulses that he refuses to control. He’s enabled by a group of sycophants who are trying to help him rewrite the history of that singular moment when Trump’s true face emerged, when he said that “there’s blame on both sides … very fine people on both sides,” after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent and Heather Heyer was killed.
The issue has risen up again following Joe Biden’s campaign launch, in which he attacked Trump for that response. Trump has responded by twisting the origins of that white supremacist mob, saying the demonstration in August 2017 was just people from the “neighborhood” at the University of Virginia who “wanted to protest the fact that they want to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee.” The next day he doubled down on his Lee hagiography, calling the traitor “one of the great generals” and reiterating, “People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.”
What everybody knows is that the “Unite the Right” rally was organized—organized—by white supremacists and neo-Nazis and began the night before with a torch-carrying mob of “very fine people” who marched past a synagogue chanting, “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” the Nazi nationalist slogan. It was anything but a “statue protest that went wrong,” said Nicole Hemmer, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and a witness to the rally. “Anyone who was there that day would have walked into a park of people waving Nazi flags and people who were Klansmen. It was not a secret who put that rally on that day.”
Trump’s team, now that there are no more adults in charge, is going whole hog in denying reality and helping Trump. One spokesman, Judd Deere, had the audacity to say that Trump has “and will continue to condemn racism, bigotry, and violence in all forms” and that any argument to the contrary is “a slanderous attempt to sow division in America.” The loathsome Kellyanne Conway went on CNN at the end of April to say that Trump’s “very fine people” statement “was twisted for many years” (less than two) and was “darn near perfection.” That’s the message Trump’s team is telling the normal world: It’s all been blown out of proportion, and Trump is just a keen student of military history with an appreciation for a great strategist and general.
But Trump’s loyal base knows better. As Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, says, his continued downplaying of the event and normalizing of white supremacists “is not a dog whistle picked up by the alt-right—it’s a bullhorn the whole country can hear.” We know it has “emboldened extremists,” he says, “Because they say so. It’s spurred this new, nativistic nationalism that’s playing out on college campuses and social media and now cities across the country.”
“When you say you’re against white supremacy but then you praise Robert E. Lee, the general who led us in the war in favor of white supremacy, I think it’s safe to say these are contradictory messages,” Greenblatt continued. That has to be viewed, he said, as part of the continuing story, from Charlottesville to the massacres at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, to the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, to the Poway, California, synagogue. “These aren’t outliers on a scatter plot. […] These are data points on a trend line.” One that Trump is encouraging.