Let’s be very clear about what just happened at Donald Trump’s press conference. He gave the alt-right its greatest national media moment ever. He even called some of them “very fine people.” Don’t believe me? Watch this key statement:
Pres. Trump on Charlottesville: “There’s blame on both sides…you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.” pic.twitter.com/ayX9eHABsN— ABC News (@ABC) August 15, 2017
Trump: [Inaudible.] You have some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group — excuse me, excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
To understand the significance of Trump’s words, you have to understand a bit about the alt-right. While its members certainly march with Nazis and make common cause with neo-Confederates, it views itself as something different. They’re the “intellectual” adherents to white identity politics. They believe their movement is substantially different and more serious than the Klansmen of days past. When Trump carves them away from the Nazis and distinguishes them from the neo-Confederates, he’s doing exactly what they want. He’s making them respectable. He’s making them different.
But “very fine people” don’t march with tiki torches chanting “blood and soil” or “Jews will not replace us.” The Charlottesville rally was a specific “unite the right” rally that sought to bind the alt-right together with all these other groups. The alt-right wants it both ways. They want the strength in numbers of the larger fascist right while also enjoying the credibility granted them by Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Milo, and — today — the president of the United States.
The most pernicious forms of evil always mix truth and lies. So, yes, there were kernels of truth in some of Trump’s statements. No question there were hateful, violent leftists in Charlottesville this weekend. And on the question of monuments, Trump is right to point out the lack of a limiting principle. We already know that some on the Left have their eyes set on demolishing or removing monuments and memorials that have nothing to do with the Confederacy, but all that pales in importance compared to his stubborn and angry attempts not just at moral equivalence (after all, no one on the Left committed murder this weekend) but at actually whitewashing evil.
What makes this all the more puzzling is that it is so easy to say the right thing here. Do not call anyone at a racist rally a ”very fine” person. It’s not hard to name and condemn an act of alt-right terrorism. It’s not hard to name and condemn the alt-right without equivocation. And it’s not hard to also condemn political violence on all sides. If you think Trump did those things, and sent the right message to the racists, think again. Alt-right Twitter overflowed with gratitude. Richard Spencer declared that Trump “cares about the truth,” and others complimented him for his “uncucking.” This jubilant tweet from David Duke says it all:
Donald Trump loves people who love him, and the vile and vicious alt-right has loved him from the beginning. Today, he loved them right back.