Opinion: If Trump can’t disavow white supremacists, why should anyone want him as president?

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump after the first debate with Joe Biden.
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump after the first debate with Joe Biden.
(Getty Images)

I’ll get to the whole white supremacy thing in the presidential debate in a minute. But first, let me set the scene: Last night, President Trump was belligerent, bullying and wildly inaccurate in most of the first debate with his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. But that’s who Trump is.

I don’t know why people were shocked by his performance. No matter what he said, his base was already locked and loaded and ready to vote for him — if they can figure out a way, because, after all, Trump has contended that most of the avenues for voting have been compromised. I’m guessing what Trump hopes is that his performance wooed the base-adjacent folks — the undecided but conservative voters who want to protect gun rights while also depriving themselves and everyone else of some degree of abortion rights.

I can understand why he plays to those voters. But even on the most coarse political level, why can he not disavow white supremacists? He claims Black people would do better by having him as president. Just FYI, there’s no universe in which white supremacists are sanctioned where Black people do better. And (rational) white people abhor white supremacists as well.


But, mystifyingly, Trump seems to have missed this calculus. I can’t believe in debate prep Chris Christie, the Republican former New Jersey governor, or anyone else said to Trump, “Hey, if the moderator asks you whether you support white supremacists, dodge the question and attack antifa” (the anti-fascist and left-wing political movement). And if they did, they should never get invited back to the White House for … anything.

And, sure enough, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace (who did a heroic job of moderating a debate in which the sitting president decided to go rogue and not follow any of the rules he agreed to) asked Trump: “Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”

First, Trump dodged and said all the protesters he sees are “from the left wing, not from the right wing.” But then he said, “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

“Then do it, sir,” said Wallace.

Trump took a beat and seemed unsure. “What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name.”

Wallace answered: “White supremacists and right-wing militia.”

So Trump answered that he would tell the Proud Boys — a violent group described by the Anti-Defamation League as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration,” to “stand back and stand by.” (Huh?) Then he pivoted back to his diatribe on antifa: “I’ll tell you what. Someone has got to do something about antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”

OK. Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that he’s right (and there’s no evidence he is) that antifa is the bigger threat. What does he lose by disavowing the white supremacists we know have become more public and outspoken in the last four years and have shown up at various protests to stir up mayhem?


Whose votes does he lose? The white supremacists’? Even Trump can’t really care about them, can he? I doubt it.

This was the thin-skinned, nasty Trump on display who is annoyed that he got criticized several years ago for not denouncing the white racists who showed up in Charlottesville at the rally that got out of control and ended in the violent death of a peaceful protester. Pressed at the time on that incident, he said, “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” (Trump and his allies insist that the president was referring to protesters for and against removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.)

The scene in Charlottesville was complicated. But, today, there is no upside in a presidential debate to offering an alarmingly vague directive to white supremacists to “stand by.” How scary is that?

But then, how scary is Trump?