When President Donald Trump doesn’t like you, he makes it very, very clear. That makes it all the more telling that when it’s up to Trump to respond to white supremacists, his reaction is often vague and tepid.
This has been exceedingly clear in the past week. During a speech in which he responded to white supremacists descending on Charlottesville, Virginia, he initially blamed “many sides” for the chaos, even though only one side — white supremacists — were responsible for the death of a counterprotester after a Nazi sympathizer drove into a crowd.
That seemed to briefly change on Monday, when Trump held another press conference in which he condemned “this weekend’s racist violence,” said that “racism is evil,” and called out the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists in particular.
That new tone, read from a teleprompter and seemingly insincere, lasted for a day. On Tuesday, Trump again shifted back to his “many sides” rhetoric and even excused the white supremacist protests.
“I think there is blame … on both sides,” he told reporters. “I have no doubt about it. You don’t have a doubt about it either. If you reported it accurately, you would say that.”
Trump also argued, “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”
The historic context is what matters here. It’s not just that Trump’s reactions have been vague and tepid statements about white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, although that is notable in and of itself. It’s also that his statements have been so uncharacteristic, given that he’s built a brand about not holding back against his critics — what Trump often characterizes as a rebuke of “political correctness.”
Just compare how Trump reacted at first over the weekend to how he reacted to criticisms from MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski:
- Trump in response to white supremacists causing violence in Charlottesville: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
- Trump on MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski in 2017: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came … to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”
In one statement, Trump is vague, suggesting no one in particular is to blame for the violence. In the other, he names specific targets and goes all out in insulting them.
And this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Time and time again, when Trump is asked to condemn white supremacists, his first reaction is to use much tamer language than he uses for anyone else.
It all points to one thing: Maybe Trump genuinely sympathizes with racist groups. Or, at the very least, he’s actively pandering to them.
Trump’s history of tepid statements against white supremacists
Early on in the campaign, a few Trump supporters attacked a homeless Mexican man, allegedly saying, “Donald Trump was right — all these illegals need to be deported.” In response, Trump didn’t even condemn the hate crime, instead describing it as a sign of how passionate his supporters are. Compare that to what Trump said about comedian Rosie O’Donnell, with whom Trump has long had a bizarre celebrity feud:
- Trump on the attack on a Mexican homeless man in his name: “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate. I will say that, and everybody here has reported it.”
- Trump on Rosie O’Donnell in 2011: “I feel sorry for Rosie 's new partner in love whose parents are devastated at the thought of their daughter being with @Rosie--a true loser.”
Trump personally attacks O’Donnell, who criticized him while she was a co-host on The View. Meanwhile, the people who attacked a Mexican homeless man actually get what can be interpreted as a compliment.
Later in the campaign, Trump ran into some trouble when he was asked to condemn former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who endorsed him. Trump told CNN host Jake Tapper that he didn’t know “anything about David Duke” — even though in 2000, before he ran for president, he had called Duke “a bigot, a racist, a problem.”
After the moment sparked a few days of controversy, Trump gave a tepid statement distancing himself from Duke. Again, let’s compare it to how he reacted to ex–Fox News host Megyn Kelly asking him tough questions at a Republican debate:
- Trump on Duke: “David Duke is a bad person, who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years. … I disavowed him. I disavowed the KKK.”
- Trump on Kelly in 2015: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base.”
Trump literally suggests that Kelly must have been tough on him because she was menstruating. But he uses nearly passive language about the support of a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan — only mustering the strength to call him “a bad person.”
A similar scenario played out when Trump was elected in November. When reporters asked him if he accepted the support of white supremacists who were celebrating his victory, Trump refused to accept the connection between white supremacists and his win, then used passive language. Compare that to his remarks against Sen. John McCain (D-AZ), who was captured and tortured by enemy forces in the Vietnam War:
- Trump on white supremacists who supported him: “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”
- Trump on Sen. John McCain in 2015: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
With the white nationalists, Trump isn’t direct about whom he’s criticizing, and he uses passive language. With McCain, Trump goes hard — questioning the value of his actual military service and sacrifices for his country.
This is a pattern. It’s something Trump seems to do every single time he’s asked to speak on hatred and bigotry. It’s a sign that Trump sympathizes with — or at least is deliberately pandering to — white supremacists.
Actual white supremacists love that Trump does this
Here’s the thing: It’s not just Trump’s critics who see what Trump is doing as pandering. White supremacists see it this way too, and they love Trump for it.
Shortly after his remarks on Saturday, the white supremacist publication the Daily Stormer praised Trump:
Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.
He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides!
So he implied the antifa are haters.
There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.
He said he loves us all.
Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him.
No condemnation at all.
When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.
Really, really good.
God bless him.
During the campaign trail, we saw similar messaging from white supremacists. As Sarah Posner and David Neiwert reported at Mother Jones, what the media largely treated as gaffes — Trump retweeting white nationalists, Trump describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals — were to white supremacists real signals approving of their racist causes. One white supremacist wrote, “Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full-wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters.”
Some of them even argued that Trump has softened the greater public to their racist messaging. “The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions,” said Rachel Pendergraft, a national organizer for the Knights Party, which succeeded David Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet, but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will.”
That emboldening is what we saw in Charlottesville over the weekend. When asked to explain the Charlottesville protests, Duke argued, “We are determined to take our country back,” he said at the protests, describing them as a “turning point.” “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” (Although he did criticize some of Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville later on.)
More than anything, this is the clearest evidence of Trump’s pandering: White supremacists themselves interpret his statements favorably. They feel emboldened. And as long as Trump refuses to clearly, consistently, and unequivocally condemn their racist cause, that will continue.