When President Donald Trump is upset with you, he will let you know. This has been a hard rule about Trump — to the point it’s hard to believe any feud is too petty or too far for him. From Rosie O’Donnell to the family of a dead US military veteran, Trump has been ready to condemn just about everyone who gets in his way.
A couple weeks into his presidency, Trump even bashed the US retailer Nordstrom on Twitter: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!” There, he used the power of the White House to attempt to throw a job-creating US company under the bus just because it had let go of his daughter’s clothing line.
But when it comes to white supremacists, Trump’s statements are uncharacteristically tepid.
After white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan descended onto Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend and caused chaos and violence in the small city (leading to at least three deaths), Trump gave a strangely vague response that didn’t blame anyone in particular: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
Asked to clarify the statement, a White House official doubled down: “The President was condemning hatred, bigotry and violence from all sources and all sides. There was violence between protesters and counter protesters today.” It was only after a day of criticism that the White House — but, crucially, not Trump himself — clarified that when he condemned violence and bigotry on “many sides,” “of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis and all extremist groups.”
These are groups who literally want to violently rid the country of entire races and ethnic groups (some by genocide, some by forced eviction), and showed up to a small Virginia city to start trouble because it was getting rid of its pro-slavery Confederate monuments. Yet the president of the United States had trouble castigating the specific parties involved, even as other members of his political party — from Paul Ryan to Marco Rubio — called the problem for what it was: bigotry and white supremacy.
We can never truly say what’s in Trump’s heart and mind. But there’s a pattern here: Time and time again, when Trump has a chance to condemn white supremacists, he panders to them instead. And that pandering is unlike what he does with nearly any other people and groups he dislikes.
Trump has condemned all sorts of people by name in petty feuds
There have been many, many articles written about how no feud is too petty for Trump. The New York Times, for instance, keeps an ongoing count of all the people, places, and things that Trump has insulted on Twitter. As of late July, he had bashed more than 350 people, places, and things.
Of course, Trump doesn’t just randomly insult people on Twitter; he often does it with his mouth too.
It’s helpful to look at some of the people Trump has bashed over the past few years. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you a pretty good indication of how vast Trump’s feuds spread:
- The Khans, the family of a Muslim military veteran who was killed in action
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Alec Baldwin
- The cast of Hamilton
- Meryl Streep
- Rosie O’Donnell
- Samuel L. Jackson
- Whoopi Goldberg
- Mark Cuban
- Paulina Vega, former Miss Universe
- Anderson Cooper
- Joe Scarborough
- Megyn Kelly
- Bandon Dunes Golf Resort
- Gonzalo Curiel, a US judge who oversaw a Trump University case
- James Comey, former FBI director
- Barack Obama
- Hillary Clinton
- John McCain, Republican senator of Arizona
- Lindsey Graham, Republican senator of South Carolina
- Lisa Murkowski, Republican senator of Alaska
- Jeff Sessions, his own attorney general
- Opinion polls
- The Bias-Free Language Guide
The list really could go on and on.
In fact, this is a crucial part to Trump’s public persona. That he’s so willing to stand up to anyone he sees as a threat is one of the things that made some people like Trump in the first place.
Take, for instance, his position on terrorism. Trump consistently bashed Obama and Clinton for failing to call out, from his view, “radical Islamic terrorism” — never mind that there are important national security considerations for not using that phrase. To a lot of Trump supporters, this dog whistle about Muslims spoke to who the real enemy is, and they loved that he was willing to call it out even if it wasn’t “politically correct.”
So when there’s an attack that may have been caused by a Muslim perpetrator, Trump quickly jumps on Twitter to declare it as terrorism — even before the authorities have confirmed anything — and will use it to push his policies, such as his travel ban.
A new radical Islamic terrorist has just attacked in Louvre Museum in Paris. Tourists were locked down. France on edge again. GET SMART U.S.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
Yet when it comes to white supremacists, Trump takes a very different approach.
Trump has repeatedly pandered to white supremacists
It’s not just Trump’s comments on Saturday that were tepid. On the campaign trail, Trump was just as vague when it came to condemning some of the white nationalists and other extremists who had come to endorse him.
When he appeared on CNN’s State of the Union in February last year, host Jake Tapper gave him what should be a pretty easy task: condemn the KKK. Trump dodged.
Here’s the exchange, which is really worth reading in full to see just how evasive Trump is when asked to, out of all things, condemn a KKK grand wizard:
TAPPER: I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League, which this week called on you to publicly condemn unequivocally the racism of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who recently said that voting against you at this point would be treason to your heritage. Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?
TRUMP: Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. Did he endorse me? Or what’s going on? Because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. So you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.
TAPPER: I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is even if you don’t know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you. Would you just say unequivocally you condemn them and you don’t want their support?
TRUMP: Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don't know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I’d have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong. You may have groups in there that are totally fine — and it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups and I’ll let you know.
TAPPER: Okay. I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here, but—
TRUMP: Honestly, I don't know David Duke. I don't believe I've ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn't meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him.
For the record, Trump had, in the past, known plenty about David Duke. When Trump declined to run for president in 2000 as a member of the Reform Party, he said that he didn’t want to be associated with Duke, who had supported Pat Buchanan’s nomination for the Reform Party. Trump at the time called Duke “a bigot, a racist, a problem.” This only seemed to change once he began running for president in 2015.
Trump did eventually disassociate himself with Duke a few days after the Tapper interview, when he finally said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “David Duke is a bad person, who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years.” He added, “I disavowed him. I disavowed the KKK.” He later blamed his initial refusal to do so on Tapper’s show on a faulty earpiece, which doesn’t make much sense if you look at the transcript.
But even how Trump eventually rebuked Duke was uncharacteristic. When Trump finds a target, he usually uses evocative language to criticize them — such as when he suggested that Rosie O’Donnell is a “fat pig” at a Republican debate, and when he nicknamed his Republican primary opponents “Little Marco” and “Lyin‘ Ted.” With white supremacists, he used nearly passive language.
The same issue would pop up later in the year, when Trump was elected and reporters once again asked him if he accepted the support of white nationalists. Trump used his now typical passive language for white supremacists, saying, “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”
Then came Saturday, when Trump, instead of blaming the chaos in Charlottesville on white supremacists, blamed “many sides.” It was only after repeated criticism that the White House — but, again, not Trump himself — clarified the statement to mention “extremist groups.”
Once again, the pattern repeated itself: Trump did some pandering to racists, only for him or his staff to vaguely and tepidly clarify what he was saying — but only after it was too late.
White supremacists love Trump
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, David 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 keeps refusing to clearly and unequivocally condemn their racist cause, that will continue.