It’s news in 2017 that the president of the United States finally said that racism is bad.
Let that sink in. After a weekend of violence caused by white supremacists descending on Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the city’s plan to remove a Confederate statue, the media and White House made a big deal about a two-days-late press conference in which Trump 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.
But Trump’s statement was only news because it stood in contrast to what he initially said. On Saturday, after a reported Nazi sympathizer rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters and killed counterprotester Heather Heyer, Trump blamed both sides for the violence: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
This is, frankly, pathetic. It has been more than five decades since Martin Luther King Jr. marched on the Capitol and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Civil rights for black Americans have been enshrined into our federal laws in the decades since then. And, of course, our last president was a black man.
In this context, it should not be a cause for celebration that the president, after days of renewed criticisms from the media and politicians alike, finally acknowledged that racism is bad. But Trump has done such a bad job with the kind of rhetoric that was taken for granted for past presidents that it’s now a major news event when he does what we used to consider normal.
There’s a danger here: A positive media response risks glossing over the damage that Trump has already done. For one, a big reason there was racist violence in Charlottesville to begin with was in part because Trump had consistently pandered to white supremacists.
Just consider what former KKK grand wizard David Duke told reporters in Charlottesville. “We are determined to take our country back,” Duke said, calling the protests 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.”
Duke did not say this out of nowhere; until this point, Trump was clearly pandering to racists. That’s the only context that can explain why his new comments against racism suddenly have any news value. That’s how much Trump lowered the bar with all of his previous remarks.
Trump refused to condemn racism in the past
To understand what Trump has done, it’s useful to compare how he’s historically spoken about white supremacists and other violent racists in the past versus how he’s spoken about all the other people he’s criticized. The problem is not solely that Trump failed to condemn racists in the past — although that is notable in and of itself — but that Trump’s supposed rebukes of white supremacists were uncharacteristically tepid.
For example, just compare how Trump reacted at first over the weekend to how he previously 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, Trump names specific targets and goes all out in insulting them.
Early on in the presidential 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 with what Trump said about comedian Rosie O’Donnell, with whom he 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 also ran into some trouble when he was asked to condemn Duke, the former KKK grand wizard who endorsed him. Trump told CNN host Jake Tapper that he didn’t know “anything about David Duke” — even though in 2000, long 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 this with how he reacted to former 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 Megyn 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 to disavow them. Compare that to his remarks against common Trump critic and Sen. John McCain (R-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 was a pattern. It’s something Trump seemed to do every single time he was asked to speak on hatred and bigotry. It was a sign that Trump was deliberately pandering to white supremacists.
Actual white supremacists love that Trump did this
Here’s the thing: It’s not just Trump’s critics who saw what Trump was doing as pandering. White supremacists saw it this way too — and they loved 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 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.”
More than anything, this was the clearest evidence of Trump’s pandering: White supremacists themselves interpret his statements favorably. They felt emboldened — enough so to march into Charlottesville and cause chaos over the weekend.
It’s only in this context that Trump speaking out against racism becomes news. After years of pandering to racists, Trump has finally condemned them in a clear way. The real news, though, should be that it’s a travesty this was even necessary and that it took so long.