If there remained any doubt about Donald Trump’s true feelings toward the alt-right and white supremacists, Tuesday’s dumpster fire of a press conference put them to rest.
When news of last Friday’s violence in Charlottesville began making the rounds, Trump — not normally one to hold his tongue — remained curiously silent. Amid mounting public pressure, Trump eventually tweeted a lukewarm condemnation of hate in general, though his critics rightly pointed out that Trump wasn’t quite clear on who, exactly, he was condemning.
Later that day, Trump held an impromptu press conference in which he again denounced the violence before apportioning blame “on all sides” for the events unfolding in Charlottesville. This, of course, only fanned the flames of his previous, tepid tweet (which probably would have been acceptable if he’d just left it alone).
The White House (but not Trump specifically) eventually clarified the remarks on Sunday, this time calling out the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups by name. And had that been the end of it, we would likely have forgotten about the whole thing by this time next week — especially given Trump’s uncanny ability to manipulate the news cycle.
And then came Tuesday’s press conference.
The original purpose of the press conference was for Trump to sign an executive order on infrastructure legislation (you know, those things that don’t actually do anything except make Trump feel like a Big Special Boy for a few fleeting moments). Naturally, the assembled reporters took the opportunity to follow up with Trump about his apparent hesitancy to denounce white supremacist groups.
What followed was perhaps the most bizarre and, at times, unhinged press conference ever held by a United States President. When asked why he waited more than 48 hours to specifically condemn white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, Trump responded, “You still don’t know the facts, and it’s a very, very important process to me…” (This, of course, is the same man who once fabricated a terrorist attack in Sweden to underscore a point he was attempting to make regarding illegal immigration.)
If the Trump Train was ever actually on the tracks, this is about the point when it finally jumped them. Trump went on to claim that he has “created over a million jobs since I [was elected] president” (he hasn’t); that there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville; that the protesters on Friday night were doing so “very quietly” (they attacked counter-protesters and beat them with tiki torches); and attempted to equate George Washington with Stonewall Jackson.
Donald Trump was given myriad opportunities to display some semblance of humanity and humility in the wake of the first (but probably not the last) major explosion of white supremacist violence of his presidency. And at every step along the way, he failed spectacularly.
That Trump failed to specifically denounce white supremacist groups and neo-Nazi organizations in his initial remarks was damning, but given a charitable reading, one could argue that his first response was a (characteristically ham-fisted) attempt to remain politically neutral.
But when it became clear that that wasn’t enough, that the American people and his fellow politicians on both sides of the aisle expected him to issue a flat denunciation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Trump couldn’t do it.
The later “clarification” that specifically denounced these groups was issued by a White House source and not the President himself. (It was also reported that white supremacist groups viewed Trump’s initial response as implicit approval of their actions, and the clarification itself was deemed “hollow and vapid” by prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer.) Even so, despite the disconcerting amount of time it took Trump to actually issue a denunciation, he did eventually do it. (Sort of.)
Tuesday’s press conference undid all that work. Reports surfaced that Trump was angry that he was pressured into clarifying his stance, and White House sources indicated that the press conference was Trump publicly expressing what he’d been saying privately all along. When explaining the thought process (inasmuch as one existed) behind not jumping to denounce white supremacy before he had all the facts, Trump noted that he didn’t want to “make a statement for the sake of a political statement.” This is revealing.
Trump is a famously unpolished speaker; in fact, it is that lack of polish that helped his populist message resonate with many voters. He says the wrong thing about as often (if not more so) as he does the right one, but it’s normally explained away by some variation on the following: “He says what’s on his mind”; “He speaks from the heart”; “He shoots from the hip.”
By extension, then, we can view Trump’s refusal to immediately condemn neo-Nazi violence and white supremacist terrorism as an indicator of his true feelings on the matter. If Trump believes condemning neo-Nazi violence is the kind of thing a savvy political operator would do, rather than the default reaction of any moderately-compassionate human being with a functioning moral compass, then he must not view neo-Nazis and white supremacists as a problem.
It explains why some of his closest aides are ethno-nationalists, white nationalists, and members of far-right, neo-Nazi groups. Previous claims that Trump is a racist were largely centered in examples of implicit racism, either by association or by his willingness to traffic in dog-whistle politics. But during his meltdown on Tuesday, Trump’s true feelings were clearly on display.
Now, do I believe Donald Trump is a white supremacist of the kind we saw on display in Charlottesville? Honestly, no, if only because he’s so intellectually incurious and monumentally self-absorbed that it’s unlikely he’s ever even thought about his race. In all likelihood, he’s merely a bigoted septuagenarian, a cranky old man wondering why people are always talking about this “race” stuff instead of knowing their place like they did in the old days.
The assumption that Trump is not a white supremacist leaves us with only one other explanation, one that is just as alarming: he is completely bankrupt of anything resembling moral fortitude. His thoughts and actions are guided only by his pathological need for approval, with little thought given to the places from which he seeks it.
Trump talked a big game on the campaign trail, making absurd promises and pandering to the most vile, insidious, and tribalistic impulses of the (unsettlingly large) white nationalist members of his base. He did it all for the applause, for the fleeting comfort of knowing, at least for a moment, that he was the most well-liked person in the room.
Seven months into his presidency, Trump’s base is rapidly eroding, and he knows it. What’s worse, he knows that he won’t be able to fulfill the promises he made, so he dissembles. He bluffs. He blames everyone else for his failures. The question of whether to risk angering white supremacists and neo-Nazis by denouncing what they stand for should not require anything more than a moment’s thought; for a normal person, it isn’t even a question.
But Donald Trump is not a normal person — he is driven purely by his insatiable yearning for respect, for admiration, for power. As Tuesday’s press conference demonstrated, there are no depths to which he is unwilling to sink in his endless quest to get them.