When the president of the United States passed on his third opportunity to condemn unequivocally and without caveats Nazi sympathizers marching in his name, John Podhoretz dubbed it “one of the most disheartening facts of my lifetime.” This gut wrenching display of wounded, bitter petulance turned the stomachs of observers on all sides of the political aisle, and it has catalyzed the most concerted backlash to Trump among Republican lawmakers since the “Access Hollywood” tape. For cynical Trump critics, though, this is all posturing. They await deliverance from the age of Trump. They know that hinges on GOP lawmakers turning on their own president—an extraordinary prospect—and that won’t happen until Republican voters have had enough. The cynics are right. This will not break Trump’s base.
It turns out Trump felt compelled to revisit the comments he made on Monday because they were delivered under duress. Trump ignited a controversy on Saturday when, in the aftermath of murderous violence in Charlottesville, he went off script and condemned violence “on many sides.” According to White House officials who spoke with the New York Times, Trump was frustrated by having to clean up that mess with a canned statement. On Tuesday, he went against their advice by articulating sentiments he had “long expressed in private.”
What the political class on both sides of the aisle heard him say from that podium in Trump Tower was appalling. They watched a visibly agitated Trump fail to make a distinction between a march in which both neo-Nazi demonstrators and counter-demonstrators clashed and a white supremacist attacked peaceful protesters blocks away from the skirmishes. They saw him invest emotionally in the notion that “the alt-left”—a term that, unlike the “alt-right,” no group embraces and has no universally understood meaning—was as guilty as anyone. They heard him defend the people who attended a torch-lit march in which demonstrators rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee throwing Hitler salutes and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
For those observers, the spectacle was nauseating. Bound up in ego and without any appreciation for posterity or comity, Trump had taken a sledgehammer to the fragile racial consensus ironed out in America over centuries of conflict. But that’s not what the president’s supporters heard. Even some who have little love for Trump but resent his liberal and media opponents heard something entirely different.
“The night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump insisted. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
Who is to say whether that’s true or not? Sure, it seems unlikely that someone who is not a white supremacist would find him or herself in the middle of a crowd of neo-Nazis and go with the flow. But that sentiment is certainly true of America at large. Millions of Americans who are not neo-Confederate sympathizers are nevertheless alarmed by the tearing down of landmarks they’ve known all their lives, especially when that’s not the result of political consensus but the work of frenzied swarms of revisionist youth. They might not have even seen the torch-lit rally because it wasn’t featured in media they consume. They are not racist and they reject violence, but they do resent the pace of cultural change. Trump might as well have been talking about them. So, to them, Trump was right.
Trump later insisted that those protesting the removal of the statue—a pretext only later embraced by alt-right protesters but not the impetus for the “Unite the Right” gathering—had a point. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” Trump noticed. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Trump supporters didn’t hear the president equate a traitorous religious zealot who fought in defense of slavery with both the nation’s first patrician president and the author of the most powerful classically liberal document the world had ever seen. They heard an old argument, one that has been articulated by Republicans since Democrats began purging Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their collective histories—that there is no limiting principle to the idea that antebellum slaveholders must be expunged from our public squares. So, to them, Trump was right.
“You are changing history, you’re changing culture,” Trump insisted. “You had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” There! Trump condemned the Nazis. What more do you want? And there were counter-demonstrators in “black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats” who were amendable to being provoked into a fight with their racist counterparts. Even the New York Times reporter on the scene admitted to witnessing “club-wielding ‘Antifa beating white nationalists.” So, on that point, Trump was right.
Perhaps in their hearts, these Trump supporters know that the president has given succor to the worst fringes of American society and likely swollen their ranks as a result. But the collective response to Trump’s press conference yesterday on the part of the political class will likely only render the impulse to rally around the president more justified and urgent.
Writing in Business Insider, Josh Barro postulated that Trump’s “many sides” comment on Saturday amounted to a Hillary Clinton-like “deplorables” moment. He speculated that, by evincing caution when faced with the prospect of denouncing his most racist supporters, Trump lumped the more respectable members of his base in with an ugly crowd and they wouldn’t appreciate it. But people possess an infinite capacity for rationalization. In this case, it isn’t even a compromising task; if Trump is all that stands between them and the forces of violence, un-American revisionism, and socialism, a little sloppy messaging on white supremacy is a tolerable compromise.
Republican base voters are not budging and so, no matter their personal sentiments, their elected representatives are obliged to stay put as well.