Politics & Policy

Trump’s Disastrous Mishandling of Charlottesville Will Have Consequences

Donald Trump winces while delivering remarks on the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia (Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
At very least, he will now be forced to make a decision about Steve Bannon.

After Charlottesville, Donald Trump’s presidency is entering a new phase, and it is his own fault. It was Trump who decided to throw away prepared remarks on Saturday in favor of an equivocal statement that once again proved racists are the only group he can’t quite bring himself to condemn. It was Trump who decided to read a less equivocal statement on Monday, even if he read it in a tone that suggested his aides had a bayonet at his back. And it was Trump who gave a press conference yesterday in which he telegraphed his resentment of Monday’s statement while raving at the press about how there were some good and decent folks among those chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

The president will now be forced to choose between the Steve Bannon wing of his White House and nearly everybody else who works for him. The rumor mill has lately suggested that Bannon’s firing is imminent.

Bannon is the impresario behind Breitbart.com who went on to become Trump’s chief political strategist. Critics and admirers alike often try to guess what he really believes. They just can’t quite bring themselves to see that a spade is a spade. There is something cosmically funny and noncredible about the pockmarked and corpulent former Goldman Sachs honcho fostering an alt-right movement that curates fascist social-media accounts obsessed with bodybuilding, detests the influence of finance, and whispers that “physiognomy is real.” Bannon’s 2014 speech to a conference in the Vatican showed that he can “clean up” his own views when it suits him. Late last year, he protested to the Wall Street Journal that he has “zero tolerance” for “racist or anti-Semitic ideas.” On occasion, he has even hinted that the politics of Breitbart.com are partly the product of Machiavellian cynicism rather than sincerely held belief.

It’s astonishing how many people indulge this theory or find it exculpatory, how many people want to be in on the joke or the scam. Perhaps we should judge people by what they do. The website he edited, ostensibly dedicated to political and cultural coverage, had a section dedicated to “black crime,” which is to say it had a section dedicated to fomenting racism against African-Americans, nakedly advertising itself as such.

The results of Bannon’s political and entrepreneurial project are coming in. Has it resulted in an enlightened America First foreign policy, with trade barriers protecting a robust manufacturing economy and providing employment to men of all races, who can in turn feed their thriving families? No, it has not. It’s given us a dysfunctional administration and a polity even more divided than before.

In Charlottesville white racists, nakedly advertising themselves as such, chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” last weekend. Some of them were armed and outfitted like teenage spree-killers on their way to kill their classmates and themselves at school. Some of them wore red ball caps and chanted “Heil Trump.” One of them rammed his car into protestors, injuring a score of them and killing at least one.

Our head of state is trying to micromanage the social opprobrium falling on neo-Nazis and all Republicans can think to do with their power on the Hill is cut taxes and social benefits.

Shockingly, after a white racist emerged from a small sea of MAGA hats to murder someone with his car, people who run businesses and go to charity events and genuinely see themselves as civilized adults demanded that Trump fire the chief political strategist who has indulged white racism for fun and profit. So far, Trump hasn’t complied.

The whole theory behind a successful Trump presidency was that he could unite conservative populists with mainstream, business-oriented Republicans, somehow managing to make the worst aspects of each group cancel each other out. The populists would check the greedy self-dealing of the business types, and the desire for respectability would prevent the populists from acting on their darkest animosities. This was always a pipe dream. It would have been impossible even if the man at the top was a political genius of great cunning and self-control. Instead, we have Trump, and almost the opposite case obtains: Our head of state is trying to micromanage the social opprobrium falling on neo-Nazis and all Republicans can think to do with their power on the Hill is cut taxes and social benefits.

Canning Bannon will hurt Trump. There’s a distinct possibility that he would return to his career of internet pamphleteering and maneuver his battleship of populist media against the president. Having turned against Bannon after turning on Jeff Sessions and Reince Priebus, Trump would be inclined to stick with kith and kin. My friend John Zmirak fears that “Trump minus Bannon equals Jeb!” and says, correctly, that “Jeb!” is not what people voted for. But seeing the results of Trump plus Bannon makes me wonder: Maybe people should have voted for Jeb instead.

The Trump administration is politically wounded in a serious way. Trump’s own decisions have now led him to the point where he must begin to choose between the moderates with money and the populists, when he’s always needed both. America’s silent majority, the “normies” who used to say that they work hard and play by the rules, are baffled by a president who can’t even do the easiest thing imaginable: read a script that says all the right things.

If you’re an elected Republican with ambitions for the highest office in the land, you’d be well-advised to reset your target date to 2020.

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