While this line of criticism is completely valid, it obscures that not only does the president have no political incentive to condemn violence by his self-proclaimed supporters but that even if Trump did condemn violence he has remained silent on, it would not fundamentally change his political strategy and policies.
In a vacuum, that insistence makes sense; people, especially establishment voices on the center-left and center-right, want the president of the United States to be a voice of moral clarity and guidance. Unfortunately, the current occupant of the White House has never been a voice of moral conviction — not as president, not as a candidate and not once in his 70 years of life.
One statement of condemnation will do nothing to change that.
Of course, the insistence that Donald Trump condemn violence committed extensively in his name paid off as he did offer a statement of condemnation.
Unsurprisingly, that condemnation was wholly insufficient, lacking in moral clarity and reeking of cynical false equivalence.
If anything, the president’s statement should begin to put to bed the strange insistence that an amoral opportunist would have any interest in a wholeheartedly condemning any violent act that does not specifically benefit his political project and aspirations.
It ought to be unequivocally clear at this point that Trump can never be trusted to condemn violence that doesn’t explicitly play into his message nor will any condemnation stem the torrent of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim bigotry only amplified by his administration.
The fact that this insistence continues to have major resonance among conservative and liberal critics of the president reveals the extent to which the discomfort with Trump in the White House reverts back to the hyperventilation of his destruction of “norms” and, especially with conservatives, his uncouth nature.
The elite media’s hopeful obsession with Trump becoming normal can be neatly summed up in a recent New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman.
“What strikes me most about Trump, though, is how easily he still could become more popular — fast — if he just behaved like a normal leader for a month: if he reached out to Democrats on health care, taxes or infrastructure; stopped insulting every newsperson who writes critically about him; stopped lying; stopped tweeting inanities; and actually apologized for some of his most egregious actions and asked for forgiveness. Americans are a forgiving people.”
This passage presupposes that the American people’s biggest reason for disapproving the president are his tweets and behavior, not his policies, general incompetence and belief that he is above the law.
It also neglects that part of Trump’s insatiable popularity with his base is exactly his breaking of norms, and the exact reason his behavior will never change.
The strange pining among many elites that Trump act like a “normal” politician runs parallel to the notion of Trump as an aberration, instead of the result of dozens of social, economic, cultural and political trends of American life over the past few generations.
The Trump as an aberration narrative, in the eyes of much of the Washington consensus and for many liberals, is understandable since his election took a sledgehammer to a perceived reality of America.
The constant cries of “this is not normal” reflect that narrative at the most basic level.
This brings us back to Charlottesville where many of the same media pundits have decried the events as somehow foreign to America with shrieks of “this is not the country I know.”
Trump and his administration have undoubtably emboldened racism and bigotry to its most visceral levels in years, but it is difficult to claim his political ascendancy was anymore rooted in the politics of racial resentment than Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush.
Lest we forget that Nixon gave us the racist project of the war on drugs, Reagan began his 1980 political campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi of all places, and Bush ran perhaps the most racist campaign ad in history.
The only difference between those politicians and Trump is that the racial dog whistles have been traded in for blow horns.
Before I continue, it is important to acknowledge two things:
1. This weekend’s events in Charlottesville were a gathering of white supremacist activists organized to defend the statue of a Confederate icon on the UVA campus and with the expressed goal to intimidate an entire community that ended in a display of violent thuggery and terrorism, resulting in the death of one counter-protester.2. This display was the ugliest distillation of a hatred sanctioned by the White House, and the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement for over 50 years.
This did not come out of nowhere, and it does not exist in a vacuum. This is not an aberration but inexorably tethered to this nation’s racist past and present.
This is the direct result of decades of racial resentment inculcated via Fox News and right-wing talk radio.
That the president of the United States, a man that built his political career on white rage, uttered the most unimaginatively pathetic condemnation is thoroughly unsurprising.
It would have been better if he just remained silent.
We already know which side this president stands on white supremacy, so at least his silence would have been more instructive than an insufficient, muddled statement.
In the absence of an adequate condemnation from the president, it’s time to move on from the fantasy that if he were to adequately condemn his supporters’ violence it would mark his transformation into a moral leader.
Instead, our collective energy would be better spent applauding and remembering the solidarity displayed by a diverse array of individuals standing up against the scourge of the alt-right and white supremacy.
Tragically, Heather Heyer gave her life fighting for the dignity of people of color, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community and people with disabilities.
The events in Charlottesville that came to a horrifically violent and ought to be a reminder that white supremacist should not be able to gather without vociferous opposition.
They may have the right to gather but not without merciless disruption by legions of counter-protesters.
They must be challenged whenever possible, for lives are in the balance.