White House

The ‘Very Fine People’ Trap and How to Avoid It Today

President Donald Trump responds to a question during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 6, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
There is a time for careful nuance, and then there is a time for the foghorn.

Violent, racially charged disorder in our nation’s cities, and the involvement of Antifa, evokes memories of the lowest moment of Donald Trump’s presidency: the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that erupted in violence that left one protestor dead and many more injured. Joe Biden even made President Trump’s “very fine people” line after Charlottesville the centerpiece of Biden’s presidential announcement. The shadow of Trump’s response still hangs over his communications on the George Floyd riots. And not only over Trump: Leading Minnesota Democrats tried over the weekend to play the “both sides” game to blame the Floyd riots on white supremacists, apparently into the teeth of evidence to the contrary.

It is worth revisiting now what happened then, and what it tells us about presidential and political communication in this sort of crisis. Trump’s critics have frequently misrepresented what the president actually said. But Trump’s defenders also missed the bigger picture of why his response was both morally and politically tone-deaf. The very skill that has been Trump’s greatest political asset — his ability to blast his chosen theme like a foghorn over the din of the media and his critics — deserted him then. He is still struggling with the same problem today, as well as with the legacy of “very fine people.”

The Accusation

Media outlets and commentators have repeatedly claimed that Trump called the white supremacists at the 2017 rally “very fine people.” Just a few examples:

“Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: ‘Some Very Fine People on Both Sides’” — Rosie Gray, The Atlantic, August 15, 2017.

“President Trump calls white supremacists ‘very fine people,’ blames Charlottesville on ‘both sides’ in bizarre Trump Tower tirade” — Denis Slattery and Christopher Brennan, New York Daily News, August 16, 2017.

“Guy Who Dubbed Neo-Nazis ‘Very Fine People’ Suddenly Concerned About Anti-Semitism” — Bess Levin, Vanity Fair, March 6, 2019.

“Laura Ingraham claims Trump ‘did not stand up for Nazis’ when he called the Charlottesville Nazis ‘very fine people’” — Media Matters, July 9, 2019.

Joe Biden, in his presidential announcement in April:

Charlottesville is also home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years. It was there, in August of 2017, that we saw Klansmen, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis come out into the open — their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, bearing the fangs of racism. They chanted the same anti-Semitic and racist bile heard across Europe in the 1930s and 40s. They were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued. A brave young woman lost her life.

And that’s when we heard words from the President of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of our nation. He said there were some “very fine people on both sides.” With those words, the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.

In a back-and-forth with Joel Pollak of Breitbart, Biden defended his attack on the Charlottesville statement: “let’s get this straight — he said there were very fine people in both groups. They were chanting anti-Semitic slogans, carrying flags.”

Kamala Harris tweeted in June that Trump “called neo-Nazis ‘fine people.’” Other Democrats have piled on, following the El Paso shooting. Elizabeth Warren: “He has given aid and comfort to white supremacists. He’s done the wink and a nod. He has talked about white supremacists as fine people.” Cory Booker: “He is responsible and sowing these kinds of divisions to hate-mongers, in fact failing to even condemn them where we saw in Charlottesville where he talks about there being good people on both sides.” Julian Castro: “He didn’t step up right away and condemn the neo-Nazis after Charlottesville.”

Tale of the Tape

Let’s look at what Trump actually said, and when. Recall that there were two days of protests in Charlottesville around the question of removing a Robert E. Lee statue there. Friday night, August 11, was the ‘tiki torches’ march — a gathering of a hundred or two white nationalists that drew a ton of national press attention, because the national media loves nothing more than to give free publicity to white nationalists. The march initially looked as if it might go off peacefully, but it ended with a late-night brawl when the marchers encountered a few dozen protestors.

As a result of the press coverage, Saturday’s rally drew a much larger crowd of thousands of marchers, protestors, and counter-protestors, ranging from neo-Nazis and Klansmen to Antifa. Many attendees from each of these groups came armed, armored, and/or masked, either looking for trouble or ready for it, and there was plenty to go around on all sides. In the worst incident, Heather Heyer, a peaceful protestor, was killed and dozens were injured when James Fields, a 21-year-old neo-Nazi, drove his car into a peacefully protesting crowd. Fields was convicted of murder in December 2018 and sentenced in July 2019 to more than 400 years in prison. He is currently appealing his conviction.

Trump’s initial response was at a bill-signing event at his golf club in New Jersey on Saturday, after there was news of the violence but before all the facts were really available (this was around two hours after the car attack):

[W]e’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Va. We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America . . . I just got off the phone with the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and we agree that the hate and the division must stop, and must stop right now . . . Above all else, we must remember this truth, no matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first. We love our country. We love our God. We love our flag. We’re proud of our country. We’re proud of who we are. So, we want to get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville, and we want to study it. And we want to see what we’re doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen. . . . We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together. So important. We have to respect each other. Ideally we have to love each other.

The reference to “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” drew a lot of immediate criticism for not singling out the white supremacists whose rally it was, and who — it quickly became clear — had produced the only fatality. On Monday, Trump gave a formal statement from the White House that singled out “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists” but suggested that other kinds of violent racists could also be bad:

[B]ased on the events that took place over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, I would like to provide the nation with an update on the ongoing federal response to the horrific attack and violence that was witnessed by everyone. I just met with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the deadly car attack that killed one innocent American and wounded 20 others. To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered.

As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America. And as I have said many times before: No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws, we all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.

Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

Two days ago, a young American woman, Heather Heyer, was tragically killed. Her death fills us with grief, and we send her family our thoughts, our prayers, and our love.

This would have been a better statement if Trump had given it a day earlier, but it covered what a normal president is supposed to say about this sort of thing. The press, for a variety of reasons — more on that below — wanted more from Trump. At a raucous press conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday, Trump tried to discuss infrastructure, but the questions quickly turned to hostile critiques of his prior statements on Charlottesville:

Q    Let me ask you, Mr. President, why did you wait so long to blast neo-Nazis?

THE PRESIDENT:  I didn’t wait long.

Q    You waited two days —

THE PRESIDENT:  I didn’t wait long.

Q    Forty-eight hours.

THE PRESIDENT:  I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct — not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. And it’s a very, very important process to me, and it’s a very important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts. If you go back to –

Q    So you had to (inaudible) white supremacists?

THE PRESIDENT:  I brought it. I brought it. I brought it.

Q    Was it terrorism, in your opinion, what happened?

THE PRESIDENT:  As I said on — remember, Saturday — we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. It has no place in America. And then it went on from there. Now, here’s the thing —

Q    (Inaudible) many sides.

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me. Excuse me. Take it nice and easy. Here’s the thing: When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet, as we were speaking. This event just happened. Before I make a statement, I need the facts. So I don’t want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent. In fact, the young woman, who I hear was a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC — her mother wrote me and said through, I guess, Twitter, social media, the nicest things. And I very much appreciated that. I hear she was a fine — really, actually, an incredible young woman. But her mother, on Twitter, thanked me for what I said. And honestly, if the press were not fake, and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. But unlike you, and unlike — excuse me, unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.

Q    Why do Nazis like you — (inaudible) — these statements?

THE PRESIDENT:  They don’t. They don’t.

While it can be argued that Trump waited too long to issue Monday’s statement about the protests, he was on perfectly defensible ground to wait for more facts before speaking more definitively about the violence on Saturday (especially with a possible federal prosecution looming), despite the demands for instant responses that our Twitter-driven instant culture produces. Of course, waiting for all the facts before diving right in with an opinion is not typically Trump’s m.o., at least when he thinks he can make some political hay. Part of the reason for the belligerence of the press right out of the gate was the sense that Trump should have said something between Friday night and Saturday morning.

The press conference escalated from there, and I can’t quote it all here, but it’s worth exploring at length to get the context. Trump was clear, by Trump standards, on the murder of Heather Heyer:

Q    Two questions. Was this terrorism?  And can you tell us how you’re feeling about your chief strategist, Stephen Bannon?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country. And that is — you can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as “the fastest one to come up with a good verdict.” That’s what I’d call it. Because there is a question: Is it murder?  Is it terrorism?  And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer. And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.

Trump was, however, more defensive when the term “alt-right” came up immediately after questions about his former adviser Steve Bannon (who had bragged, a year earlier, about making Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right” but was frantically distancing himself from the term by mid-2017):

Q    Senator McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I’m sure Senator McCain must know what he’s talking about. But when you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me. You define it. Go ahead.

Q    Well, I’m saying, as Senator —

THE PRESIDENT:  No, define it for me. Come on, let’s go. Define it for me.

Q    Senator McCain defined them as the same group —

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at …the, as you say, the alt-right?  Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this: What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs?  Do they have any problem?  I think they do. As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.

Q    You’re not putting these —

THE PRESIDENT:  Wait a minute. I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day —

Q    Sir, you’re not putting these protestors on the same level as neo-Nazis — Is the alt-left as bad as white supremacy?

THE PRESIDENT:  I will tell you something. I watched those very closely — much more closely than you people watched it. And you have — you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group — you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.

You can see here the two things that Trump wouldn’t give the press. One is that he balked, especially at the mentions of Bannon and McCain, at connecting the “alt-right” label with white supremacy. The other is that he refused to say that the white supremacist groups at Charlottesville were worse than violent Antifa. That is where the press conference began to really escalate:

Q    Is the alt-left as bad as Nazis?  Are they as bad as Nazis?

THE PRESIDENT:  Go ahead.

Q    Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?

THE PRESIDENT:  Those people — all of those people –excuse me, I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. 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 of Robert E. Lee.

Q    Should that statue be taken down?

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me. If you take a look at some of the groups, and you see — and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not — but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?  You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop? But they were there to protest — excuse me, if you take a look, the night before they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

Infrastructure question. Go ahead.

Q    Should the statues of Robert E. Lee stay up?

THE PRESIDENT:  I would say that’s up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located.

Trump reiterated once again his condemnation of neo-Nazis, but then he shifted to another point: that some people were there just to protest in favor of the Lee statute, and that this was a reasonable position to take. He had to know he wasn’t getting the “infrastructure question” he was begging for by this point.

Q    How concerned are you about race relations in America?  And do you think things have gotten worse or better since you took office?

THE PRESIDENT:  I think they’ve gotten better or the same. Look, they’ve been frayed for a long time. And you can ask President Obama about that, because he’d make speeches about it. But I believe that the fact that I brought in — it will be soon — millions of jobs…I think that’s going to have a tremendous, positive impact on race relations…. And I’ll tell you, we’re spending a lot of money on the inner cities. We’re fixing the inner cities. We’re doing far more than anybody has done with respect to the inner cities. It’s a priority for me, and it’s very important.

Q    Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?

THE PRESIDENT:  I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this:  You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs — and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch.

But there is another side. There was a group on this side. You can call them the left — you just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.

Q    (Inaudible) both sides, sir. You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides. Are the —

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. If you look at both sides — I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. And if you reported it accurately, you would say.

Q    The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest —

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves — and you had 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.

Q    (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT: 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.

Q    George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same.

THE PRESIDENT: George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner?  So will George Washington now lose his status? . . . Are we going to take down statues to George Washington?  How about Thomas Jefferson?  What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?  You like him?

Q    I do love Thomas Jefferson.

I’ll just pause for a second to note the absurdity of calling these “questions.” Several in a row are just statements or assertions.

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue?  Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what, it’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Okay?  And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people. But you also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad people in the other group.

Q    Who are the good people? Sir, I just didn’t understand what you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly?  I just don’t understand what you were saying.

THE PRESIDENT: No, no. There were people in that rally — and I looked the night before — if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest — because I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So I only tell you this: There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country — a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country.

Trump concluded by making it extremely clear that he was not only condemning “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists,” as he did on Monday, but also “white nationalists,” which he repeated three times. You may or may not see a difference between white supremacists and white nationalists (there’s certainly not a significant difference in practice), but at least some of the people who use the latter term would resist claiming the former. In any event, Trump’s comfort in denouncing “white nationalists” stands in some contrast to his discomfort being asked to denounce “the alt-right,” even though the “alt-right” concept was more or less designed to rebrand varying strains of white nationalism.

Truth and Myth

As you can see, if you focus on closely reading what Trump said, it’s just not accurate to say that he “fail[ed] to even condemn” white supremacists [Booker], “talked about white supremacists as fine people” [Warren], or “called neo-Nazis ‘fine people.’” [Harris]. Politicians and media outlets who keep repeating that years later are inventing their own narrative of what happened. Trump’s defenders were right, and his critics wrong, about the precise things he said. The problem is the context in which he said them, and the way in which presidential communication works. That matters, and not only to Trump.

Joe Biden’s claim that Trump “assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it” raises its own questions. Trump did, in fact, assert a moral equivalence between violent protestors on both sides, and also a moral equivalence between non-violent non-white-nationalist protestors on both sides. He very clearly did not equate non-violent anti-Klan demonstrators with violent white nationalists.

Left unsaid — and of importance today — was Biden’s apparent assumption that violent Antifa radicals who showed up geared for street fighting should have been treated simply as people with “courage.” There was a reasonable basis for Trump to complain that left-wingers at the event were violent, and initiating violence, and that media coverage of the event should have made clear that there was some fault to go around on both sides. To this day, the Democrat and liberal revisionism of the event seeks to scrub that part from the story, in order to present Charlottesville — as Biden did — as a simple case of pure-hearted liberals confronting a monolith of violent haters.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot: We see widespread street violence in which Antifa is playing a significant, visible role. Democratic politicians, including Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, Minnesota governor Tim Walz, and Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison (a onetime Antifa sympathizer now leading the Floyd prosecution) are the ones playing a “what about them?” game with the possibility (unproven at best, at this writing) of white supremacists in there somewhere if you squint hard enough. They would be wiser, on this occasion, not to take a page from Trump’s Charlottesville playbook. The facts on the ground matter.

What “Very Fine People”?

About those “very fine people” protesting in favor of the Robert E. Lee statue, who were not white nationalists, neo-Nazis, or anything of the sort: Were there actually any such people at either of the rallies? The left-wing answer is that if you oppose tearing down a Lee statute, you’re a white nationalist by definition, and if you start from that premise, there isn’t really much point in paying attention to the details anyway. But for the rest of us, take a look at the evidence.

Trump defenders point to this quote from a front-page piece in the New York Times by Jeremy W. Peters, Jonathan Martin, and Jack Healy, the day after the Trump Tower press conference:

“Good people can go to Charlottesville,” said Michelle Piercy, a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

After listening to Mr. Trump on Tuesday, she said it was as if he had channeled her and her friends — all gun-loving defenders of free speech, she said, who had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists: “It’s almost like he talked to one of our people.”

Melanie Morgan of the blog Media Equalizer also profiled Piercy at the time:

Michelle Piercy, who travelled to Charlottesville to participate as a neutral peacekeeper for American Warrior Revolution, a group that stands up for individual free speech rights and acts as a buffer between competing voices, knew there was going to be violence, but went anyway. “We were made aware that the situation could be dangerous, and we were prepared.” Piercy says. The Wichita night-worker for a Kansas retirement home said that “the situation was completely disorganized, the police were responsible for herding white supremacists on the street where Antifa and BLM were located….” Piercy says that she doesn’t support white supremacy, Naziism, or alt-right causes. . . .“My partner is a black man who travelled to Charlottesville for the same reason I did [to protect free speech]. We were in groups and he’s a very good man. What we were trying to do is talk to Antifa and Black Lives Matter and let them know that the way they were protesting is the wrong way to go about it.”

That’s a perfectly valid reason to be there, if not really what Trump seemed to be talking about. Far-left writer Jonathan Katz, however, argued that neither of these accounts tells the whole story of Piercy or American Warrior Revolution:

According to a lawsuit filed against armed groups after the riot, American Warrior Revolution is a “paramilitary group … active in the militia movement.” It brought 37 members, “many of them armed with semiautomatic weapons” to the rally. . . . The group has been permanently enjoined from returning to Charlottesville “as a part of a unit of two or more persons acting in concert when armed.”

More broadly, the atmosphere of both rallies (Friday night and Saturday) would lead anyone who watched them to question whether there was actually anyone there peacefully protesting in favor of the Robert E. Lee statue who wasn’t a white nationalist. As Robert Tracinski observed:

I live in the Charlottesville area, and I know very fine people who oppose the removal of the monuments based on high-minded notions about preserving history. I’m one of them. So I know that we weren’t there that night. Only the white nationalists were there.

The Friday night rally was small, so small it was impossible to hide an independent group of protestors in it. And Biden was right about that rally, which Trump appeared to be referencing in portions of his remarks: While it was a peaceful demonstration until the collision with protestors at the end, the televised images captured a scene of unified anti-Semitic, white-power sloganeering (e.g., “Jews will not replace us”) that no decent person could have been associated with.

Saturday was a bigger, more chaotic event, so it’s really impossible in retrospect to disprove Trump’s assertion that the crowd contained some peaceable pro-Lee-statue demonstrators. But nobody seems to have any photographic or video evidence to show where Trump might have seen such a thing. The scene was such a horror show of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Antifa goons that it’s hard to imagine why any decent person would have wanted a part of it, unless (like the anti-white-nationalist protestors) you were there to be seen making a specific objection to the people holding the rally. And as Tracinski noted in a column at The Federalist the day after the Trump Tower presser, the only people with a permit for the event were white nationalists who had advertised it with flyers steeped in neo-Nazi imagery that didn’t even mention Robert E. Lee aside from the name of the park:

(Yes, if you look closely, half of the Confederate soldiers on the poster are Pepe the Frog, that notorious icon of the online alt-right.)

In short, Trump’s distinction between violent and/or hate-filled white nationalists and peaceable pro-Lee-statue protestors was an arguable one in the abstract, and in the national and local debates about Confederate statues — but it was disconnected from the reality of the event. It was disconnected from what Trump most likely saw, disconnected from what most Americans following the media coverage saw (even on right-leaning outlets), and more or less irrelevant to the entire point of why the event was national news.

The white nationalists were the center of the story. The peaceful anti-white-nationalist protestors were part of the story. The Antifa goons were also a legitimate part of the story. But the presence of “very fine people” on the pro-Lee-statue side were not an important part of the story until Trump tried to make them one. In so doing, he created a major distraction that swamped the message the nation needed to hear from him, and that his Monday and Tuesday statements both laid out: that the President of the United States denounced toxic and violent white nationalists without reservation. Instead of maintaining the discipline to deliver that message, Trump handed both his media and left-wing critics and his fans on the alt-right a smoke bomb with which to obscure everything else he said.

The Distance Problem

Why was it so important, in 2017, for Trump to get that message out? Because, of course, he had been dogged for a long time by the justified sense that he was hesitant to denounce white nationalists who supported him. It had been an open issue in the presidential campaign as far back as February 2016, when he was visibly uncomfortable and dilatory in renouncing the support of David Duke. Much of the context of subsequent controversies — Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” line, Bannon’s role in the White House — revolved around whether Trump was too unwilling to draw a clear line between his campaign and presidency and the tiny but toxic and (as we have subsequently seen) dangerous white-nationalist movement. When Trump’s original statement on Saturday didn’t address that, Lindsey Graham said on Fox News Sunday that he had “missed an opportunity” because “These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House . . . I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he’s their friend.”

Following the Trump Tower press conference — and Roy Moore’s primary victory that night in Alabama — Republican leaders treated Trump’s comments as hitting the wrong note. Mitch McConnell issued a statement the next day that didn’t mention Trump but emphasized that “There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head. . . . The hate and bigotry witnessed in Charlottesville does not reflect American values.” Paul Ryan, then the Speaker of the House, said on CNN a week after the Trump Tower press conference:

I have a hard time believing, if you’re standing in a crowd to protest something and you see, you know, all these anti-Semitic slogans, and Heil Hitlers and swastikas, that you’re [] a good person. This is very clear. I totally agree with that. That’s why I think, yeah, it was not only morally ambiguous, it was equivocating. And that was wrong.

Even if (unlike me) you think nothing of the moral value of a clear statement from the president unambiguously renouncing this sort of thing, it is political malpractice of the highest order to hand your open enemies the one message they most want to use against you. That’s exactly what Trump did by invoking “very fine people” that nobody else had seen or considered important to the story, and it’s why, over two years later, it’s still so much work to get anyone to take seriously all the other things he said.

Why Did He Do It?

So, if bringing up “very fine people” at the Charlottesville rally was such a bad move, why did Trump do it? Few inquiries are typically less rewarding than arguments about why Donald Trump says the things he does; most people just start with a theory and impose it on every statement, like an ongoing orange Rorschach test. It’s impossible to prove anything. But it’s worth at least considering the major possibilities.

The most anti-Trump argument is that Trump was trying to offer some sort of wink-wink to the white nationalists: After all, everybody at that rally thought somebody else was the deplorable one, so Trump offering a life preserver would be a way for white nationalists to tell themselves that Trump was, in fact, on their side. This was Aaron Blake’s take in the Washington Post:

Trump does this a lot. He will say something suggestive — in this case, suggestive that the violence in Charlottesville wasn’t really such a clear-cut result of resurgent racism — and then he will later say something else to give himself plausible deniability. But the plausibility here is basically nil. Trump seemed to find something redeeming in a group of protesters that was clearly full of racists.

The theory, which frankly has never been all that convincingly disproven as a general matter, is that Trump genuinely believes that racists are an important part of his political support, and thus feels the need to hang onto their support. I’m not sure it really fits the facts of “very fine people,” though, unless Trump was just suicidally oblivious to why he said all the other things he said. Mind you, this was after his ugly breakup with Bannon, who was pushing the Moore campaign just as Trump was opposing it. His frustrated insistence at the time that he had already said enough, and his frustrated insistence since then at how the “very fine people” line went over, suggests he knew and knows perfectly well that this was a misstep.

A more primal explanation is Trump’s need to always fight back. A rally or an act of violence by white racists is, for liberals and Democrats, a perceived opportunity to score points by painting them as the real identity of Republicans and conservatives. A Republican leader without hangups about having to always fight back would see this as a “Sister Souljah”-style opportunity to draw distinctions with the far right, the way Nikki Haley did after the Charleston shooting. Trump’s first instinct on Saturday was to cast blame on both sides — which was fair in a general sense, but failed utterly to address either the predominant role of white nationalists in creating the news events, or the public’s need to hear particularly from Trump speaking against them. In his prepared statement on Monday, he got the balance right: some blame for both sides, but a particular focus on the problem of white racists. When pushed into back-and-forth at a presser the next day, however, his combative instinct to throw something back at the “fake news” reporters for not spreading blame to ‘the other side’ took over.

Finally, there may be a third factor at work: family history. In 1927, Trump’s father Fred (then 21) was arrested when a melee broke out at a Klan march in Jamaica, Queens. No media accounts identified Fred as one of the Klansmen, and after being cited for “refusing to disperse from a parade when ordered to do so,” he was — unlike many of the others arrested — released by the police without being formally charged. President Trump, who was born nineteen years later, would have no first-hand knowledge of what really happened, but he was naturally predisposed to think of his father as a “very fine person” who got sucked into an ugly three-way fight between the Klan, the NYPD, and people of varying dispositions who came out to see what was happening in their neighborhood.

Whether he did so in good faith or not, Donald Trump told the nation what it needed to hear from him after Charlottesville: He denounced white nationalists and violence and never called Nazis “very fine people.” But he also stepped on his own lines, telling a story disconnected from reality and totally inapt to the moment, and feeding the worst fears of what a Trump presidency represents. No amount of apologetics, more than two years later, can fix that. Presidents don’t get moments like that back.

The Long Shadow of Charlottesville

All of that is past now. But it continues to plague Trump’s ability to communicate about issues of race and violent street protest precisely when the nation needs presidential leadership. Trump has, once again, said a lot of the right things about the Floyd case and the riots, yet most of the attention has focused on his fight with Twitter over his right to bluster about shooting looters. More to the point, Trump would be on much firmer ground blasting Antifa’s role today if he had sent a clearer message then.

Democrats benefit from a friendlier media environment than Trump does, but there are still lessons here for them as well. Trying to tell people not to believe their lying eyes about whom they see looting, burning, beating, and getting arrested is the one message a lot of people will remember, even if it’s only a fraction of what they are saying. Mayor Frey in particular will probably live to regret blaming everything on outside white supremacist agitators.

It’s always easier to get out a message that fits your political brand than one that is off your usual message. But the latter can be heard over the din if it’s loud, clear, and forceful. Consider the media attention over the weekend to Atlanta’s Democratic mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms telling protestors, “You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country. We are better than this. We are better than this as a city. We are better than this as a country. Go home.”

Rioters and violent demonstrators are, in fact, a disgrace no matter their cause, and they should go home. American politicians should not fear to tell them that, even on those days when more of the trouble is coming from their own side of the ideological spectrum. There is a time for careful nuance, and then there is a time for the foghorn.

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