A Petulant Trump Pouts About Having to Condemn Racism

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Anti-Trump activists hold placards during a demonstration ahead of the arrival of the U.S. president in Manhattan on August 14. Reuters

If I am willing to expend considerable time and emotional energy, I can get my daughter to clean her room. She will do it grudgingly, but she will eventually throw her toys into a cubby and stuff her clothes into closets. When finished, she will fix her face into a grimace so that I know exactly how thoroughly I annoyed her.

My daughter is 5. Donald Trump is 71. More to the point, he is the president of the United States. But since his Monday afternoon press conference, in which he explicitly condemned the white nationalist groups responsible for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump has behaved like a surly toddler deeply irritated by having to denounce racism and violence. We made the president clean his room, and he is furious about it. What next, having to eat veggies for dinner?

We can’t possibly know how sincere Trump was in Monday’s statement. But the fact that it came on Monday, not Saturday, says plenty about the president’s moral mettle. He read the statement from a teleprompter, issuing a condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan and likeminded hate groups that was welcome, if lacking in the vigor he’s shown in railing against the likes of CNN. The New York Times reported that his initial impulse regarding the Charlottesville tragedy was to heed the counsel of White House chief political strategist Stephen Bannon, a nationalist who believes pandering to the far right is a winning strategy, both on the campaign trail and in the West Wing. (Polls seem to indicate otherwise.)

There also came the news that Trump was mulling a pardon for disgraced Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was found guilty of criminal contempt charges last month in federal court. The conviction stemmed from his discriminatory treatment of immigrants who have brown skin. Arpaio is a hero of the extreme right, where his antediluvian views on immigration are generally embraced. This was not lost on Trump, who on Monday retweeted a Fox & Friends item about the potential pardon. The message to his supporters is not especially subtle. Nor to those Americans who expect a president to rise above.

Twitter is always the most reliable measure of where Trump stands on any issue. And as far as Charlottesville is concerned, he plainly stands with those who believe that the violence was caused by “leftist” counterprotesters associated with the AntiFa, or anti-fascist, movement. That local police handled the matter poorly and are therefore to blame. That national media outlets are focused on the event because it reflects poorly on Trump’s base, not because it left three people dead or because it shows racism’s troubling hold on white America.

Trump made as much indisputably clear with a Monday evening tweet in which he said the “truly bad people” were not the violent racists who’d descended on Charlottesville but the “#Fake News Media” that “will never be satisfied.” He’d said what they wanted him to say. What else did they want?

Later, Trump retweeted Jack Posobiec, a witless right-wing troll behind several vile pro-Trump conspiracy theories. Posobiec wondered why there was no “national media outrage” over the gun violence in Chicago. The implication of the tweet was unmissable, trying to distract from the frothing racism in Charlottesville by pointing to the black-on-black violence of Chicago’s South Side. Not that Posobiec has any sympathy for the plight of the urban poor. Trump may, but it is too easily lost in the ocean of personal grievance.

By retweeting Posobiec, Trump subtly directed his millions of followers to the rest of Posobiec’s feed, which is full of conspiracy theories about the “deep state,” the liberal media and George Soros. Posobiec doubtlessly knows that Trump stands with him. So does the neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer, who dismissed Trump’s press conference on Monday as “Kumbaya nonsense.”  

Trump decided to begin Tuesday by retweeting an image of “a train running over a person with a CNN logo covering the person’s head,” as the Times described the message. He deleted the retweet shortly thereafter, but he’d nevertheless revealed the depths of his self-concern and injury. We always know where Donald Trump stands: with Donald Trump.

Again, it’s impossible to say if Trump truly believes the extremist nonsense that fills his Twitter feed. But he certainly seems to draw comfort from people who do, long after the moment when he should have discarded partisanship for leadership.

In refusing to lead, Trump has united an impressive coalition of Americans against him. Increasingly unpopular, he is sealed in a bunker with Bannon and his acolyte, Sebastian Gorka, the laughably self-important Hungarian fanatic with alleged Nazi ties. The president’s voice is frequently channeled by Stephen Miller, a sclerotic nationalist who embarrasses the White House and the notion of public service. In thrall to these hateful pseudo-men, Trump lashes out at those who expect more from him, who continue to hope against hope that he can transcend his own worst impulses and demonstrate, if only for a moment, that he belongs in the Oval Office.