Donald Trump’s statement today on Saturday’s murder in Charlottesville — a grudging, teleprompted address that came only after days of foot-dragging and criticism — is the latest edition of a well-worn tango.
Time and again, Trump loudly and clearly signals solidarity with the worst and most deplorable elements in American life, only to grudgingly back away in a manner designed more to give his fellow Republicans cover than to redress any actual harms.
There was nothing in today’s remarks that couldn’t have been said two days ago, and there was no hint of remorse or self-reflection over the pain his behavior as caused.
White supremacists like David Duke who see Trump as winking at them will, rightly, feel that once again the president’s willingness to take political heat on their behalf constitutes a not-so-subtle thumbs up. Americans who feel alarmed by the growing boldness of white nationalists will, rightly, feel that the president doesn’t take their concerns seriously. But Republican Party members of Congress and conservative media and institutional leaders who were discomfited by Trump’s odd behavior will have the license they need to pretend that everything is fine.
And that, ultimately, is what matters.
We’ve seen the Trump Tango before
Donald Trump, famously, emerged as a force in Republican Party politics by spending years insisting that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya.
It’s far from clear whether Trump ever actually believed this or even whether Trump fans believed it. But by publicly embracing a racist conspiracy theory that mainstream politicians failed to take up, Trump signaled to racists all across our land that he was on their side. Then, later, after capturing the GOP presidential nomination, he finally gave a press conference to address the issue. He didn’t apologize to Obama for smearing him or to black America for the lengths he went to make them feel that a significant swath of the country would ever accept them as full members of the national community. He didn’t reflect in any way on the conspiracy theory, its meaning in American life, or his own embrace of it.
He simply said — at long last — that Obama was born in America and then insinuated, falsely, that it was really all Hillary Clinton’s fault.
Duke himself was also the beneficiary of a Trump Tango, as the president spent days going to great lengths to disavow the support of white nationalists only to eventually, and reluctantly, “do the right thing” long after any decent person would have. And while the Tango is most prominently used on racial controversies, Trump’s also deployed in several rounds of Russia-related controversies — going as far out of his way as possible to indicate that he isn’t actually mad at Russian hacking, while trying to give Republican Russia hawks a fig leaf of cover.
Setting up the next grievance
There are certainly subjects on which the dictum “better late than never” applies. And a president who actually came around on the issue of white nationalism would, indeed, be preferable to one who stubbornly stuck to his guns.
But the Trump Tango never involves an apology, a change of heart, or even a good-faith effort to pretend to be sorry.
Rather than remorse, it offers his allies and supporters an excuse. It would be untenable, for example, for the CEOs of consumer-facing companies to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a president who refuses to condemn white supremacists no matter how hungry they are for corporate tax cuts. By issuing a statement — no matter how late, reluctant, or obviously fake — Trump gives corporate America the excuse it needs to pretend to believe him.
Trump calls out Nazis, white supremacists & KKK - but it still won't be enough for MSNBC or CNN.— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) August 14, 2017
Meanwhile, Trump’s fans and enablers in the conservative media get what they most want — another opportunity to play the embattled victim. Liberals, obviously, will say that Trump’s wildly unsatisfactory comments are unsatisfactory, which will give Trumpists the opportunity to denounce unreasonable liberals who just won’t give Trump a chance.
But there are no do-overs on the symbolic aspects of the American presidency. When tragedy strikes, the president is called upon to speak for the nation. Trump, plainly, is incapable of doing performing this function in anything but the most cramped and narrowly self-interested way.
The instinct to criticize Trump for late or inadequate responses is, on some level, pointless and self-defeating. He’s proven time and again that, given enough focus, he’s perfectly willing to execute the tango. But pressing him to do it only serves to let his collaborators off the hook. Rich, powerful septuagenarians who’ve defied the conventional wisdom and succeeded don’t change, and it’s time to stop waiting for Donald Trump.