Our ahistorical president is late to everything.
On Feb. 1, President Trump saluted black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, as “an example of somebody who has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
In March, at a Women’s Empowerment Panel at the White House, he lauded suffragette icon Susan B. Anthony — “Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony? I’m shocked that you’ve heard of her.”
So really, is it any surprise that Trump was unforgivably tardy in linking white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK to the death Saturday of a counter-protester at a pro-white-supremacy “Unite the Right” demonstration Saturday in Virginia?
The victim, 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer, was run down by a car in what appears to be yet another act of domestic terrorism by a white extremist. (See: Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Scott Roeder, Dylan Roof, James Hodgkinson.) In a Toledo Blade profile of the 20-year-old suspect, his high school history teacher said James Alex Fields Jr. had been fascinated by Adolf Hitler.
After two days of being hammered by Democrats and Republicans alike for his milquetoast statement condemning violence “on many sides,” Trump stood at a lectern in the White House on Monday and, in stilted tones, read a condemnation that to these ears sounded like one of the loudest dog whistles in American history.
“We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in the condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence,” said Trump, who has tried to keep Muslims from our shores, called Mexicans “rapists” and “bad hombres,” announced that transgender soldiers have no place in the military, encouraged police to rough up arrestees and described a reporter to supporters at a rally as “absolute scum” (requiring a Secret Service escort so MSNBC’s Katy Tur could get safely to her car).
Does anyone think that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville Saturday to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee are feeling chastened now that their president has rebuked them with a teleprompter speech delivered with all the emotion of a wooden plank?
Of course not. White supremacists could see that Trump’s speech was made under duress. Who takes those words seriously?
Actor Bryan Cranston tweeted that Trump sounded “like a hostage forced to read a statement by his captors.”
By Tuesday, Trump’s facade of anti-racist outrage had crumbled. In an angry tirade at Trump Tower in New York City, the man finally spoke from the heart.
He attacked the media’s failure to acknowledge that his statement Monday was “nice,” and reverted to his first response — that alt-right protesters were not the only ones who should be condemned. “There are two sides to a story,” he said. “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.”
White supremacists were grateful. In a tweet, former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke praised Trump: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville.”
Monday afternoon, a few hours after Trump’s absurdly late statement, I caught a news conference with the man who had headlined the weekend’s “Unite the Right” demonstrations in Charlottesville.
Richard Spencer has supplanted Duke as the face many (such as White House advisor Steve Bannon) are now calling the “alt-right.” In truth, the alt-right is simply the hipster version of the white supremacy movement.
Spencer, as you may have noticed, is particularly obsessed with appearances: He wears spiffy suits with pocket squares and has revived the haircut style dubbed “Hitler Youth.” (Long on top, super short on the sides.)
He condemns violence, says it is counterproductive.
And yet he spoke in almost wistful terms about the “beautiful torchlight demonstration” he organized on the University of Virginia campus Friday night, the one that evoked for many horrified onlookers the terror raids and cross burnings of the KKK.
“To do something at night with flames and light?” Spencer said. “It’s gorgeous.”
But what about the KKK? asked a reporter.
“I don’t care,” Spencer replied. “The idea that the KKK has a monopoly on torches? It’s not the case. Millions of people use torches as a way of evoking a mystical atmosphere. Not a Southern thing, not a KKK thing.”
Oh, but it is. And we all know it.
White nationalists like Spencer and Duke gave Trump’s campaign a real boost, which undoubtedly is why the president had to be forced to condemn them.
Reporters on Monday asked whether Spencer still considered Trump an ally.
“Obviously, the alt-right has come so far in the last two years, in terms of public exposure,” Spencer said. “Is Donald Trump one of the major causes of that? Of course…. We were connected to Donald Trump on a psychic level.”
White people, he said, have been dispossessed “over the course of decades,” and the dispossession is not just demographic but moral — “the delegitimization of the white man.”
“At some point,” Spencer said, “there was going to be a reckoning. And Donald Trump is part of that, and the alt-right is part of that as well.”
There should be a reckoning. But not on behalf of whiny white people frustrated because they sense their racial privilege is slipping away.
American citizens must stand up and say they have had enough of the hatred and bigotry that has animated the rise of Donald Trump, and empowered racist ideologues like Spencer.
That is the reckoning this country needs.
3:20 p.m.: This article has been updated with Tuesday comments from Trump.
This article originally published at 4:30 p.m. Monday