While the election of Obama led some to believe that racism had been exorcized, the triumph of Trump caused speculation that the demon had merely retreated to the shadows of the internet. In August of 2017, the city of Charlottesville, VA served as the location of a “United the Right” march. This march, which seems to have been a blend of neo-Nazis, white-supremacists and other of the alt-right, erupted in violence. One woman who was engaged in a counter-protest against the alt-right, Heather Heyer, was murdered. Officers Cullen and Bates were also killed when their helicopter crashed, although this appears to have been an accident.
While Trump strikes like an enraged wolverine against slights real or imaginary against himself, his initial reply to the events in Charlottesville were tepid. As has been his habit, Trump initially resisted being critical of white supremacists and garnered positive remarks from the alt-right for their perception that he has created a safe space for their racism. This weak response has, as would be expected, been the target of criticism from both the left and the more mainstream right.
Since the Second World War, condemning Nazis and Neo-Nazis has been extremely easy and safe for American politicians. Perhaps the only thing easier is endorsing apple pie. Denouncing white supremacists can be more difficult, but since the 1970s this has also been an easy move, on par with expressing a positive view of puppies in terms of the level of difficulty. This leads to the question of why Trump and the Whitehouse responded with “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides” rather than explicitly condemning the alt-right. After all, Trump pushes hard to identify acts of terror by Muslims as Islamic terror and accepts the idea that this sort of identification is critical to fighting such terror. Consistency would seem to require that Trump identify terror committed by the alt-right as “alt-right terror”, “white-supremacist terror”, “neo-Nazi terror” or whatever would be appropriate. Trump, as noted above, delayed making specific remarks about white supremacists.
Some have speculated that Trump is a racist. Trump denies this, pointing to the fact that his beloved daughter married a Jew and converted to Judaism. While Trump does certainly make racist remarks, it is not clear if he embraces an ideology of racism or any ideology at all beyond egoism and self-interest. While the question of whether he is a racist is certainly important, there is no need to speculate on the matter when addressing his response (or lack of response). What matters is that the weakness of his initial response and his delay in making a stronger response sends a clear message to the alt-right that Trump is on their side, or at least is very tolerant of their behavior. It could be claimed that the alt-right is like a deluded suitor who thinks someone is really into them when they are not, but this seems implausible. After all, Trump is very easy on the alt-right and must be pushed, reluctantly, into being critical. If he truly condemned them, he would have reacted as he always does against things he does not like: immediately, angrily, repeatedly and incoherently. Trump, by not doing this, sends a clear message and allows the alt-right to believe that Trump does not really mean it when he condemns them days after the fact. As such, while Trump might not be a racist, he does create a safe space for racists. As Charlottesville and other incidents show, the alt-right presents a more serious threat to American lives than does terror perpetrated by Muslims. As such, Trump is not only abetting the evil of racism, he could be regarded as an accessory to murder.
It could be countered that Trump did condemn the bigotry, violence and hatred and thus his critics are in error. One easy and obvious reply is that although Trump did say he condemns these things, his condemnation was not directed at the perpetrators of the violence. After seeming to be on the right track towards condemning the wrongdoers, Trump engaged in a Trump detour by condemning the bigotry and such “on many sides.” This could, of course, be explained away: perhaps Trump lost his train of thought, perhaps Trump had no idea what was going on and decided to try to cover his ignorance, or perhaps Trump was just being Trump. While these explanations are tempting, it is also worth considering that Trump was using the classic rhetorical tactic of false equivalence—treating things that are not equal as being equal. In the case at hand, Trump can be seen as regarding those opposing the alt-right as being just as bigoted, hateful and violent as the alt-right’s worst members. While there are hateful bigots who want to do violence to whites, the real and significant threat is not from those who oppose the alt-right, but from the alt-right. After all, the foundation of the alt-right is bigotry and hatred. Hating Neo-Nazis and white supremacists is the morally correct response and does not make one equivalent or even close to being the same as them.
One problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it helps feed the narrative that those who actively oppose the alt-right are bad people—evil social justice warriors and wicked special snowflakes. This encourages people who do not agree with the alt-right but do not like the left to focus on criticizing the left rather than the alt-right. However, opposing the alt-right is the right thing to do. Another problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it encourages the alt-right by allowing them to see such remarks as condemning their opponents—they can tell themselves that Trump does not really want to condemn his alt-right base but must be a little critical because of politics. While Trump might merely be pragmatically appealing to his base and selfishly serving his ego, his tolerance for the alt-right is damaging to the country and will certainly contribute to more murders.