While the majority of Americans were deeply disturbed by the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, many considered President Trump’s response to be equally as troubling after he made shameful comments that were widely seen as siding with the white supremacists against the counter protesters, and exacerbating the already deep racial tension in America.
Following the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer by a white supremacist, and dozens of injuries from violent clashes between neo-Nazis and those protesting against them, the President delivered a prepared remark on Saturday condemning the violence, but going off script to place the blame “on many sides,” and arguing that he was not responsible for the rise in racist hate groups.
The neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, wrote, “Trump’s comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us…No condemnation at all.”
Backlash was swift, as people pointed to the extensive evidence showing neo-Nazis, KKK and white supremacists ganging up to beat counter-protesters and antagonizing and threatening people in mass. Many white supremacists had come to the rally armed with torches, guns, knives, shields, and body armor, and of course the deadliest weapon became James Alex Fields’s car when he intentionally, lethally drove it into a large crowd of counter-protesters.
Several Republican Senators referred to the President’s initial remarks as insufficient. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) tweeted Saturday, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
By Monday, almost 48 hours after his initial statement, the President was forced to revise his comments and condemn white supremacists, though he still failed to denounce their support for his leadership or condemn the so-called “alt-right” movement. News outlets, social commentators and political officials continued to comment on the insincerity of his condemnation and his lack of willingness and leadership, failing to bring the country together.
But on Tuesday, following a speech on an infrastructure bill, the President took questions from reporters and chose to double-down on his original statement blaming both sides, vilifying the counter-protesters in a 15 minute display that has since shaken the nation.
In response to comments by reporters over whether or not he would be willing to condemn the alt-right—the rebranded name for the self-described white supremacist and ethnic cleansing movement—Trump said, “When you say the alt-right, define it….What about the alt-left that came charging at…the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
“The people of all genders, ages, races and backgrounds who turned out on Saturday to defend civil rights and condemn the KKK, neo-Nazis and white nationalists are heroes,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. “They did not deserve to be attacked, and they certainly did not deserve to be vilified by the President who falsely equated their message of social justice with that of white supremacists.”
People opposing white supremacy are not known as the alt-left, implying that the President created the description himself. The alt-right, however, is the modern rebranding for the self-proclaimed white supremacist movement, and were the organizers of Saturday’s protest. Known leaders of the alt-right currently serve in high ranking positions of the Trump administration, including senior advisor Stephen Miller, and deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka. Another leader of the movement, who was present in Charlottesville, is Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, an organization and think tank classified as a white supremacist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. After Trump’s election, his group held a controversial conference for the alt-right, during which Spencer notoriously chanted “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” as the cheering crowd made Nazi Salutes.
But Trump’s comments about the alt-right were only the first of many controversial statements from Wednesday. He went on to double-down on his original sentiment blaming both sides, saying of the counter protesters, “You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very very violent.”
While the white supremacists had been given a permit to protest in a park away from the statue of Robert E. Lee that they sought to defend, a judge ordered the city to let them protest in the park with the statue, causing last minute mayhem and leading to a confrontation between the white nationalists and the people there to oppose them. Many have come out to criticize the police’s response, which was considered insufficient and failed to quench much of the violence.
Trump went on to say that “Not all of those people were white supremacists by any means,” and later added, “You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.” These comments led to praise from a number of prominent white supremacists including former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, who thanked the President for his “honesty and courage.”
Texas Representative Will Hurd responded, “If you are showing up to a Klan rally you are probably a racist or a bigot.” Many of the white nationalists who came to Charlottesville had traveled across the country to march through the streets waving torches and confederate and swastika flags, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” “White Lives Matter,” and other bigoted slogans.
“We all see them for who they are,” said Smeal. “Anyone who doesn’t is employing willful ignorance.”
Senator Marco Rubio tweeted a response to the President, saying “The organizers of events which inspired and led to Charlottesville terrorist attack are 100% to blame for a number of reasons…These groups today use SAME symbols and same arguments of Nazi and KKK groups responsible for some of worst crimes against humanity ever…Mr. President you can’t allow White Supremacists to share only part of the blame. They support idea which cost nation and world so much pain.”
Smeal added, “It will take the heart and soul of the entire country to counter the damage that President Trump has done, and to make clear to white supremacists that momentum is not on their side, society will not tolerate their hate, and the voters will not support their leaders.”
Media Resources: Feminist Majority Foundation 8/14/17; Politico 8/15/17; Feminist Majority 8/16/17