(CNN)President Donald Trump faced a moral test this weekend: how would he deal with racist violence? Many would judge that he flunked that test. When it came to specifically condemning white supremacy, he simply didn’t have the vocabulary.
On Friday night, neo-Nazis turned out in Charlottesville, Virginia, with flaming torches to protest the removal of a Confederate statute i. A counter-protest developed; on Saturday, things turned violent. One person was left dead when a car drove into the crowd. An Ohio man, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, is in police custody charged with, among other things, second-degree murder. Dozens were injured in the mayhem, according to area medical authorities.
After an unusually long period of silence, the President finally said something. He denounced “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” He did not denounce the racist demonstrators in particular — even though it was they who created, at the very least, the conditions for anarchy.
To be fair to Trump, some commentators have not reported his remarks in full. Towards the end of his statement, he said that all Americans — regardless of “color, creed, religion or political party” — are Americans, and that they need to put aside their differences and learn to respect and “love” each other.
Rhetorically, this picks up where Trump’s inauguration speech left off. He famously said: “whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots … we all salute the same great American Flag.”
Trump can be fairly accused of nationalism, but it’s hard to find evidence in his public rhetoric of the kind of biological racism on display in Charlottesville. On the contrary, Trump appears to believe in a color-blind patriotism — the view that all Americans are equal and bound together by loyalty to the flag.
When he looks at what happened in Virginia, I infer that he sees not a prejudice problem but a crisis of law and order. Indeed, many conservatives insist that the Ku Klux Klan and Black Lives Matter are as bad as each other, that they both believe in an un-American politics of identity that sparks disorder.
The problem with this view is that it’s totally out of step with reality. American history and society are not color-blind. Black Lives Matter, for all its faults, sees a truth that Trump does not: America operates an unjust racial hierarchy in which people of color are relegated to the bottom. When African-Americans protest, they are expressing their powerlessness, they are punching upwards.
White supremacists, by contrast, enjoy power and authority. They are punching downwards out of irrational hate. By refusing to identify the very particular problem and evil of white racism, Trump thus divorces himself from reality. He also causes pain where a president ought to try to heal.
His defenders do have a case to make. It is wrong to suggest that the Neo-Nazis define Trump’s base: his base is much, much larger and includes people who voted for Barack Obama. It’s wrong to say that the Neo-Nazis are part of the conservative movement. But the fascists would love you to believe that, because it would give them a significance and respectability they don’t have.
Their protest was terrifying but it was small. And it would’ve probably taken place whether Trump was in the White House or not. Recall that David Duke, the former Klan leader currently enjoying some undeserved media attention, ran as a GOP candidate for governor of Louisiana and won a majority of the white vote way back in 1991 — long before Trump and despite being denounced by almost the entire Republican Party.
But conservatives have got to ask why the far-Right so often identifies with their leaders and why it is that the President’s type of rugged patriotism spreads not unity, as it promises, but disunity, disagreement and outright hate. Trump is plainly not bringing America together in the way he promised.