Like a lot of television watchers, I was shocked and bemused by the way President Donald Trump dug a new hole for himself in the wake of the Charlottesville, Va., tragedy, only 24 hours after digging his way out of an earlier one.
Then I remembered that this is Donald J. Trump. Our nation’s commander-in-chief probably thinks his presidency is, above all else, a TV show, I figured, a reality show like “The Apprentice,” in which he starred for years. He certainly handles it like one.
Trouble emerges when he goes off script. After a domestic terrorist plowed into a crowd of antiracist protestors — killing one and injuring 18 others — in the usually quiet college town on Saturday, people turned to President Trump to bring some clarity to the chaos.
A president’s most important unwritten duty comes when he is asked to step up in the wake of great tragedy to deliver a message of reassuring calm and perhaps even inspiration to an anxious nation in the midst of chaos.
After tweets proved not to be enough, Trump delivered a statement that satisfied almost no one but the white supremacist protestors. Originally intended to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee, the gathering grew into a “Unite the Right” rally to which racists nationwide were invited. The violence that broke out, Trump said, had originated on “many sides, many sides.”
Yet, there were not really “many sides” to the moral question of racism. There was only the side of the admitted racists and the side that is everybody else.
Why was Trump so eager to draw false equivalencies between the two — and choose the wrong side? Maybe he was impressed by the TV show put on the night before by the “alt-right,” a movement named by white nationalist Richard Spencer. He led an impressive torchlight parade on Friday night of mostly clean-cut young white men in khakis and white polo shirts — bitterly chanting slurs like “Jew will not replace us.”
How impressed the Donald must have been by those clean-cut young white men, in sharp contrast to the motley, multiracial and gender-diverse progressives that Fox News host and Trump pal Sean Hannity has tried to rebrand as “alt-left.”
That would explain why Trump looked like he was being held hostage when he stiffly delivered a new statement on Monday, after two days of urging by fellow Republicans, among others, that condemned racial supremacists by name.
Good. But, alas, it wouldn’t last. Twenty-four hours later, Trump was back in front of reporters, this time for an unscheduled news conference in which, without a script, he doubled-down and tripled down on his original position: “both sides” were at fault. Again.
The false equivalency was back. Worse, Trump extended his defense of the racists to include Civil War statues. What about those famous slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he said, echoing another argument from the right-wing media world of Fox News? Are we going to tear down their statues, too? Never mind that neither Washington nor Jefferson took up arms against the United States’ central government.
But these generally unproductive arguments over statues are easier on the participants than rolling up their shirtsleeves for the real work of building a better society, one where young white men don’t feel so “oppressed” that they go on marches and rallies against fellow Americans who, in many cases are worse off than they are.
Meanwhile, our president tries to enjoy the show and squeeze out a little bit more of what he really seems to want: applause.