When he was running for president, Donald Trump often dinged his opponent for her failure to forthrightly name the preeminent threat to our national security: Islamic terrorists. Now that he is president and has been confronted with a different variety of terrorism in Charlottesville, President Trump has become vague and equivocal. His original statement deploring “violence on many sides” was weak, and the halfhearted expansion of that statement — from an anonymous White House aide, not from the president — is insufficient.
Of course President Trump is correct that there has been violence on both sides during the current season of protest theater, from the black-shirted rioters and arsonists in Berkeley to the white-shirted white supremacists in Charlottesville. In the latter case, the president’s denunciation of hatred and bigotry, while welcome, fell short. It is important that he join Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, et al., and call this what it is: an act of terrorism conducted under the auspices of a white-supremacist movement that has embraced terrorism and political violence.
This is somewhat awkward for President Trump because the cracked and malevolent young men raging about “white genocide” are his people, whether he wants them or not. Let us be clear about what we mean by that: President Trump obviously has defects and shortcomings as a political leader, but we do not believe for a second that those failures include a sneaking anti-Semitism or a secret taste for neo-Confederate revanchism. At the same time, he has made common cause with those who have flirted with those elements for political and financial gain.
His adviser Steve Bannon boasted of having turned the website bearing the name of the late Andrew Breitbart into a platform for the so-called alt-right, and Trump-aligned alt-right elements have taken a more than indulgent attitude toward the Jew-haters, racists, and white-grievance-mongers whose true nature was on such dramatic display in Charlottesville. Steve Bannon does not work out of a Starbucks in Burbank — he works in the White House. Just as leaders on the left have a special responsibility to acknowledge and publicly reject the armed violence of the so-called antifa — who did indeed commit their own share of violence in Charlottesville — those on the right who are touched and sullied by factional overlap with the white-power ranters owe it to themselves, and to the principles they purport to advocate, to make it entirely clear where they stand.
And Republicans, for the most part, have done exactly that after Charlottesville. But as we have seen in the reaction from the Nazis and their allies, they do not much care about the denunciations coming from mainstream Republican figures and conservatives. They are keenly interested in what President Trump has to say, and they have taken his thus-far mealy-mouthed “both sides do it” — his refusal to reject them specifically, strongly, and by name — as tacit indulgence, as the closest thing to a public embrace that realpolitik will allow. We do not believe that they are correct about that, but President Trump nonetheless should treat the Charlottesville Nazis with the same specificity with which he denounces the New York Times, John McCain, or Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel. The president has a great gift for ridicule, and the Charlottesville Nazis are ridiculous.
They are also murderous. The car attack on the counter-protesters has all the hallmarks of a by-now-familiar act of terrorism, of a piece with similar attacks we have seen from Nice to London.
We categorically repudiate not only the specific acts of violence but also the broader cause in which this violence was deployed. The rally in question was advertised as a project to “Unite the Right.” We flatter ourselves that we have a little something to say about that, and our answer is: No. We do not wish to be united with Jew-haters, bigots, racists, and the morally and intellectually defective specimens on such sad display in Charlottesville, waving their Nazi banners and Confederate flags.
We, too, thrill to the sight of a rebel banner: the one raised by George Washington, the one that stands for the most subversive revolutionary creed the world has ever seen — that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. The pimply-faced tiki-torch gang and their media enablers have from time to time denounced this brand of conservatism as passé, and we thank them for their denunciation. You can have the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, or you can have your ridiculous race cult. We are confident that the lunatics in Charlottesville are not very numerous.
But they are not entirely insignificant, either. Armed brawls between neo-Nazi gangs and their left-wing equivalents are, for the moment, an ordinary part of our politics. That might get worse before it gets better. Responsible parties on both sides — which, in spite of what you may see on television, still exist — can at the very least be honest about what is happening and unequivocal in their condemnation of it. The president has a special responsibility to set an example here, and we urge him to live up to it.