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Why Trump’s Charlottesville crisis is shocking but not surprising

Trump has been saying racist things for a long time — and it’s never caused him a real loss.

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(Joe McNally/Getty Images)

Even by Donald Trump standards, the president’s press conference on Tuesday was a surreal spectacle.

Just a day after caving to the demands of his party and making a statement that explicitly blamed white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend, Trump reverted to his earlier position that “both sides” were culpable.

"What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?" Trump said during an impromptu news conference at Trump Tower in New York. "You can say what you want, but that's the way it is."

Trump’s statement effectively equating white supremacists with anti-racism protesters was in and of itself remarkable: The white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville over the weekend included hundreds of self-avowed neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members bearing torches, and one of them killed a woman and injured at least 19 people by ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

But even more striking was Trump’s pointed defense of some of those attending the weekend’s rallies, by framing them as merely defending American history.

"Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me," Trump said. “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.”

He went on to say that taking down statues like Lee’s or those of slave-owning presidents was “changing history” and “changing culture.”

Trump’s concern about the erosion of American identity that would come from the loss of Lee statues bears the hallmarks of Lost Cause thinking. It’s a set of beliefs that the Confederate cause was a virtuous struggle against Northern aggression, and was either minimally or completely unrelated to slavery. The historical record shows, by the accounts of those who waged war on behalf of the Confederacy, that the claim is a myth and an attempt to sanitize the old Southern project of white racial domination. For Lost Causers, protecting representations of Lee — and depicting attacks on him as an assault on sacred American heritage — is a pivotal culture war.

Trump’s decision to join the fray was telling. His presser wasn’t just another freewheeling media appearance where he makes headlines for saying things that are controversial. It was a focused attempt to defend ideas that white supremacists hold dear and cast aspersions on those who opposed them. That’s why former KKK leader David Duke thanked the president on Twitter and alt-right icon Richard Spencer immediately gushed he was “really proud of him” for his remarks.

This is all shocking. There’s a consensus in Washington that Trump has crossed a line and white supremacists are rejoicing over his rhetoric.

But still, this really shouldn’t surprise us. While on a long enough timeline Trump changes his opinion on just about any policy issue, he has been utterly consistent in saying and doing racist things over the course of his life. Bigoted statements and actions feature heavily throughout his public life and career, and were integral to his political rise. Given that he has yet to face any real negative consequences for it, there’s no reason to think he’s won’t keep at it, and in the process usher in a new era of racial tension in the US.

Trump has a ridiculously long history of public racism

Trump’s very first mention in the New York Times, the paper he worships and despises more than any other, was tied to racism.

The 1973 report details how the Department of Justice was suing the Trump Management Corporation for violating the Fair Housing Act with racially discriminatory rental practices. Trump later settled with the government and signed an agreement promising not to discriminate against renters of color, but did not admit to acting unfairly.

That was Trump’s opening act in what turned out to be decades’ worth of public commentary and action that revealed prejudice and resentment against people of other races. My colleague German Lopez put together an overview of those acts in the runup to the election:

1980s: Kip Brown, a former employee at Trump's Castle, accused another of Trump's businesses of discrimination. "When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor," Brown said. "It was the eighties, I was a teenager, but I remember it: They put us all in the back."

1988: In a commencement speech at Lehigh University, Trump spent much of his speech accusing countries like Japan of "stripping the United States of economic dignity." This matches much of his current rhetoric on China.

1989: In a controversial case that’s been characterized as a modern-day lynching, four black teenagers and one Latino teenager — the "Central Park Five" — were accused of attacking and raping a jogger in New York City. Trump immediately took charge in the case, running an ad in local papers demanding, "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!" The teens’ convictions were later vacated after they spent seven to 13 years in prison, and the city paid $41 million in a settlement to the teens. But Trump in October said he still believes they’re guilty, despite the DNA evidence to the contrary.

1991: A book by John O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, quoted Trump’s criticism of a black accountant: "Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control." Trump at first denied the remarks, but later said in a 1997 Playboy interview that "the stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true."

1992: The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino had to pay a $200,000 fine because it transferred black and women dealers off tables to accommodate a big-time gambler’s prejudices.

2000: In opposition to a casino proposed by the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, which he saw as a financial threat to his casinos in Atlantic City, Trump secretly ran a series of ads suggesting the tribe had a "record of criminal activity [that] is well documented."

2004: In season two of The Apprentice, Trump fired Kevin Allen, a black contestant, for being overeducated. "You're an unbelievably talented guy in terms of education, and you haven’t done anything," Trump said on the show. "At some point you have to say, ‘That’s enough.’"

2005: Trump publicly pitched what was essentially The Apprentice: White People vs. Black People. He said he "wasn't particularly happy" with the most recent season of his show, so he was considering "an idea that is fairly controversial — creating a team of successful African Americans versus a team of successful whites. Whether people like that idea or not, it is somewhat reflective of our very vicious world."

2010: Just a few years ago, there was a huge national controversy over the "Ground Zero Mosque" — a proposal to build a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Trump opposed the project, calling it "insensitive," and offered to buy out one of the investors in the project. On The Late Show With David Letterman, Trump argued, referring to Muslims, "Well, somebody’s blowing us up. Somebody’s blowing up buildings, and somebody’s doing lots of bad stuff."

2011: Trump played a big role in pushing false rumors that Obama — the country’s first black president — was not born in the US. He even sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama's birth certificate. Obama later released his birth certificate, calling Trump a "carnival barker."

2011: While Trump suggested that Obama wasn’t born in the US, he also argued that maybe Obama wasn’t a good enough student to have gotten into Columbia or Harvard Law School, and demanded Obama release his university transcripts. Trump claimed, "I heard he was a terrible student. Terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?"

When Trump decided to jump into the ring and make a bid for the White House, he didn’t temper his racist commentary or ideas — he doubled down on them.

He kicked off his presidential campaign with a speech in which he called Mexican immigrants "rapists" who are "bringing crime" and "bringing drugs" to the US. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the US and endorsed the idea of a database that would track them domestically. He declared a judge unfit to oversee a lawsuit of Trump University because of his Mexican heritage. He was reluctant to disavow the support of Duke and other white supremacists, and tweeted criticisms of Hillary Clinton laced with anti-Semitic imagery. He encouraged his supporters to be violent against protesters at his rallies, many of whom were affiliated with Black Lives Matter.

But just as important as Trump’s history is the fact that he hasn’t faced negative consequences for it. Trump didn’t suffer in the polls for calling Mexican rapists. He didn’t plunge in popularity after criticizing the Muslim family of a slain US soldier and suggesting the soldier’s mother “maybe … wasn’t allowed” to speak publicly about her son. His Muslim ban was popular among GOP voters. Instead of sinking him, these remarks helped Trump achieve the most successful outsider presidential campaign in modern American history.

Trump’s ability to thrive with an agenda that embraced vulgar racism isn’t inexplicable. He was channeling anxieties that Republican policy and messaging have been tapping into for more than half a century through the “Southern strategy” — appealing to white voters using coded, racially tinged rhetoric like “law and order” and “welfare queen.” George W. Bush called Islam a peaceful religion, but his “war on terror” served as a polarizing banner for huge encroachments on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.

After the Obama era caused backlash among white voters and intensified the preexisting relationship between racial attitudes and party identification, Trump simply took the subtext of the GOP’s racially tinged messaging and made it text. He determined that he’s simply saying aloud what many of his predecessors were thinking.

There is little reason to think Trump will deviate from the path he’s currently on. He knows he’ll get slapped on the wrist by the establishment media and establishment Republicans for saying things that he considers mere political incorrectness. But his life and the mandate he received from his presidential campaign have told him that embracing white resentment works.

German Lopez contributed reporting.