Here's the critical thing to remember about Donald Trump's Saturday statement in response to the violence and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia: It's not just that he refuse to condemn white supremacists. The president of the United States effectively took the side of white supremacists during his brief, four-minute statement, after which he refused to take questions. On Monday afternoon Trump shifted his rhetoric, giving into pressure and blaming white supremacists directly, but it's important to note that he backed up their arguments even as he rolled out the expected condemnations of violence.
"We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history," Trump said on Saturday.
That sounds bland enough, but it's really not. Trump weighed in on the ideological fight at the heart of the struggle in Charlottesville, and he couldn't have been clearer: He agrees with the white supremacists. That's what "cherish our history" is about. All this nonsense about love and respect — from a man whose only two modes are bullying people and being bored — is an unsubtle call for those who oppose racism to stand down.
Let's not forget that the pretense for the Unite the Right rally that devolved into violence on Saturday, at least officially, was anger over efforts to remove Confederate monuments. Claiming to defend "heritage, not hate" is a standard talking point for neo-Confederates. That's why the rally was supposed to occur near a statue of Robert E. Lee that anti-racist activists have been trying to get removed, and that's why Trump was air-kissing white supremacists with his jibber-jabber about history.
Notice, by the way, how little interest Unite the Right rally-goers had in celebrating American history. At least 350,000 American troops lost their lives fighting against the slave-holding aristocracy of the Confederacy, and more than 400,000 died fighting fascism in World War II. Those who gave their lives in those conflicts were dishonored by the play-acting cowards at Saturday's rally, which featured not just Confederate flags but Nazi regalia.
The claim that this fight is about some abstract idea of "history" and not hate is especially fatuous when you consider the history of this particular statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. Both the Lee statue and another contested statue, of Stonewall Jackson, were erected in the 1920s during a surge of Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist activity that was aimed, as the current surge also is, at undermining efforts by black Americans to secure a place in the middle class.
As Sophie Abramowitz, Eva Latterner and Gillet Rosenblith at Slate explained earlier this summer, "Installing Confederate monuments helped to facilitate and buttress these displacements both physically — by razing and demarcating the borders of black neighborhoods — and ideologically — by marking areas of political and financial power as part of the ideology of the Lost Cause." The Lee statue was built to mark the boundary between white and black neighborhoods, and the Jackson statue was built over a black neighborhood that the city forcibly seized in the early 20th century.
Just a few months ago, Trump was rolling out some of his own Lost Cause theorizing, albeit in his own garbled and nonsensical fashion. During a May interview with Salena Zito on Sirius, without any real prompting on Zito's part, Trump rolled out this confusing nonsense:
I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that -- he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There's no reason for this.” People don't realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
This was roundly mocked for many reasons, including the fact that Jackson (an avowed racist and slave-owner) died 15 years before the Civil War began. But the likeliest explanation for this bit of Lost Cause mythologizing is that Trump picked it up from half-listening to his beloved aide, white nationalist Steve Bannon.
There are many flavors of Lost Cause theorizing, but all tend to swirl around one idea: That the war was caused by Northern aggression, rather than by Southern whites who refused to give up slavery. Jackson was a slaveholder from Tennessee, a state that seceded and joined the Confederacy. It's doubtful that any deal Trump or Bannon imagines Jackson could have struck to preserve the peace would have involved the immediate or near-term abolition of slavery. Instead, as many historians argued at the time, Trump was making a Lost Cause argument, casting doubt on the idea that slavery was the cause of the war and that the Southern states were to blame for the ensuing carnage.
In the same decade that these statues were being built, Fred Trump, the president's father, was arrested in New York during a KKK riot. There were 1,000 robed Klansmen at that march and many more people who showed up, and only seven men were arrested. Fred Trump was one of them, a fact his son has repeatedly denied.
Both Donald and Fred Trump were sued in 1973 by the Justice Department for racial discrimination, after New York City officials alleged that white people were offered Trump-owned apartments that black applicants had been told were already rented. Trump also denies fault in that case, even though he and his father signed a consent decree requiring no racial discrimination going forward.
No wonder Trump's fans in Poland greeted the president with the Confederate flag during his visit. The gesture clearly has nothing to do with "heritage," either theirs or Trump's. He has no Southern ancestry and was born and raised in New York, a state that fought for the Union in America's bloodiest war.
It's also clear, from context, that Trump's call to "love each other, respect each other" is just more of the same old right-wing nonsense where conflict is blamed not on racists for spreading hate but on anti-racists for standing up to hate. That became obvious when Trump lashed out on Twitter, in a less than loving and respectful fashion, when the head of the pharmaceutical firm Merck, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from a White House advisory council and released a statement "rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy."
On Monday Trump finally caved, apparently under pressure from White House chief of staff John Kelly and other officials, and made a prepared a statement in which he called racism and white supremacy "evil." Even then, CNN reports, he insisted on blathering on about the economy first, in an obvious attempt to blunt the overall impact of the speech.
Trump's stunt will almost certainly work. The media will move on, and Trump's history of racism will fade into the background yet again. White supremacists will likely remember how their hero fought the good fight against the forces of "political correctness," holding out for two days until he was forced to give in. This will certainly be seen by racists and the alt-right not as a sincere condemnation of bigotry, but as more proof of the power of the thought police to bring even leaders who sympathize with their hateful agenda to heel.