Trump is routinely accused of tolerating and even supporting white supremacy. This is because he routinely tolerates and supports white supremacy. When Trump does this, his supporters have a mixed response. Some engaged in a rolling defense. The first line of defense is to deny Trump said the words he said. Since there is usually video or audio of his words, this defense tends to fall quickly. The second line of defense is to insist that Trump’s words were taken out of context. This line usually falls when Trumps words are given in full context. The third line of defense is for the supporters to insist they do not understand how language works and assert that the words Trump used did not mean what they mean. It is fascinating to watch people suddenly become philosophers of language engaged in a deconstruction of meaning that would arouse the most lethargic postmodernist. This line is usually overrun but almost never abandoned: because Trump has yet to say the exact words “I support white supremacy” they can always insist that his words mean something other than what they mean. There is also often a side defense that involves accusing Trump’s opponents of being the real racists. This can be a risky technique since it implies that it is bad to be a racist; but it can be understood that the point of the defense is to attack the opponents and not condemn racism. The final line of defense is that while Trump said what he said and it means what it means, he was just joking or trying to bait the libs or fake news. This can be a risky defense, since it undermines all the other defensive lines—although it is a thing of beauty to see a person run all these defenses at once and insist that all of them are true and work perfectly to defend Trump. Some of his supporters do not bother with these defenses—they are openly fine with Trump saying these
When Trump is directly asked to condemn white supremacists, he has various defenses to avoid doing this. One is to assert that he his prepared to do so. Another is to require that the person asking him the question provide a specific group for him to condemn, as if condemning white supremacy in general is not an option. The third is to blame the left, typically antifa, and accuse them of being the real racists. This should be a gift question—the easy and obvious answer is to just say “yes, I condemn white supremacy.” As an aside, it is interesting that he just doesn’t use his usual tactic and lie—he could simply say he condemns white supremacy and then blow the dog whistle a few times on Twitter to reassure certain supporters that he does not condemn it.
At the recent Presidential debate, the moderator directly asked Trump if he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups. To address the first two lines of defense, here is the full exchange in context:
WALLACE: You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing extremist groups. But are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland? Are you prepared to specifically do that?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.
CHRIS WALLACE: So what are you…
TRUMP: If you look…
WALLACE: What are you saying…
TRUMP: I’m willing to do anything – I want to see peace.
WALLACE: Well, then do it, sir.
JOE BIDEN: Say it. Do it. Say it.
TRUMP: Do you want to call them – what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead…
WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.
TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?
BIDEN: The Proud Boys.
BIDEN: The Proud Boys.
TRUMP: The Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what – somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.
As the text shows, Trump followed his usually tactics when directly questioned—at least until Biden brought up the Proud Boys (a far right neo-fascist organization that promotes violence) and Trump responded. He tells them to “stand back and stand by” and then seems to imply that they are the somebody that must do something about Antifia and the left. As always, he blames the left for the violence, pretending to ignore the fact that right-wing groups present the greatest domestic terrorist threat in the United States.
Trump’s defenders could argue that Trump misspoke when he said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” That is, he was not telling them to stand back for now and stand by to, one might infer, go attack Antifa and the left. Rather, he meant to say “Proud Boys stand down” as Wallace requested. Trump’s difficulty with language is well known—so he could be defended on these grounds. There are, however, two problems with this defense. The first is that when Trump has a language failure, he attempts to quickly fix it in an awkward and obvious manner and he never did this during the debate. The second is that the Proud Boys seem to understand exactly what he meant.
After observing the results of the debate, Trump has now asserted that he did mean to say “stand down” and has engaged in another one of his tactics: he claims to have no idea who the Proud Boys are. While it is certainly plausible for Trump to claim ignorance, it is still a bizarre defense for the President. Or anyone with 3o seconds and access to Wikipedia. When pressed again about white supremacists, Trump resorted to his usual approach, talking about law and order, and pointedly refusing to condemn white supremacists. I cannot tell whether his supporters are victims or accomplices of Trump in this matter.
While some of his supporters are clearly accomplices to Trump, I am not sure if any of them are victims—that is, they honestly believe Trump and sincerely believe that he does not tolerate and support white supremacists. Put roughly, I’m divided between seeing them as epistemically or morally defective.
In closing, what Trump says does not really matter in terms of the election. His supporters either do not know what he is or are fine with it and there seems to be nothing that would cause them to not vote for him. His opponents are also committed. There are, somehow, some undecided voters—but I have no idea what would push them one way or another at this point. What could they be waiting to learn about Trump or Biden?
Note: The blog has been edited slightly from the original to make it clearer that Biden brought up the Proud Boys and then Trump responded. Since Trump did not bring up the Proud Boys it cannot be claimed that he knew about them because he brought them up. Given Trump’s general ignorance it is not implausible that he has as much knowledge of the Proud Boys as he does about other political entities.