This clip is really something, especially when Gianno Caldwell chimes in at 1:40 or so. And with the sole exception of “Hannity,” there’s no show on television that was less likely to generate it. Imagine the president settling in this morning expecting reinforcements from F&F and having this play out in front of him. It’s not the only time he’s been savaged on Fox News in the past 24 hours either. Krauthammer went after him last night (with pushback from Laura Ingraham) and Eboni Williams laid him out on “The Specialists” yesterday afternoon, as you’ll see in the second clip below. Hot criticism like this will be safely quarantined from primetime, I’m sure, but it’s there.
According to the Times, the president was indeed speaking from the heart yesterday more so than he was during his more measured, specific denunciation of the alt-right on Monday:
No word in the Trump lexicon is as tread-worn as “unprecedented.” But members of the president’s staff, stunned and disheartened, said they never expected to hear such a voluble articulation of opinions that the president had long expressed in private. The National Economic Council chairman, Gary D. Cohn, and the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who are Jewish, stood by uncomfortably as the president exacerbated a controversy that has once again engulfed a White House in disarray…
No sooner had he delivered the Monday statement than he began railing privately to his staff about the news media. He fumed to aides about how unfairly he was being treated, and expressed sympathy with nonviolent protesters who he said were defending their “heritage,” according to a West Wing official.
What’s the big deal about Trump having noted, correctly, that there are bad, violent people in both the alt-right and antifa? (He could have gone further and aptly described them both as fascist movements.) Michael Warren explains:
White nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other racist groups who marched through the University of Virginia’s campus and in Charlottesville last weekend did so because they have been empowered by the presidency of Donald Trump. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the photos of those wearing “Make America Great Again” hats in Charlottesville. Listen to the words of arch-racist David Duke, who said his goal in attending the Charlottesville event was to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” Remember that one of the rally’s organizers, chief alt-rightist Richard Spencer, once said his movement has a “psychic connection” with Trump. Scroll through the countless Twitter accounts with swastikas and racist memes posted in between or alongside statements of support for Trump’s candidacy and presidency.
Given all this, Trump has a duty—as the president of the United States, as the head of a major political party, as a decent American—to make clear that these people are mistaken, that white supremacists and neo-Nazis have nothing in common with Trump’s agenda or his vision for the country. It does no good to say, in the same breath, that “both sides” are a part of the problem. The problem is that one side, the violent, racist side, believes they have an ally in the White House. And they have increasingly good reason to think that.
Right. Probably the strongest criticism of yesterday’s shpiel is Warren’s argument, that Trump bears special responsibility to speak up against the alt-right because they’ve taken special encouragement from his election. If you don’t want Nazis feeling emboldened in the mistaken belief that they have an ally in the president, make them understand that their belief really is mistaken. Instead Trump ended up huffing about the “alt-left,” a great rhetorical boon to the alt-right. If the “alt-left” wants to rumble, it’s only understandable that an alt-right might rise to meet them, right? No wonder white nationalists were lovestruck after watching that presser.
There are other problems. A big one was Trump’s “wut?” moment where he insisted there were perfectly fine people on both sides of the protest who were mixed in with the goonier elements. That may be true, and probably was true, among the counter-protesters: You’ve got your antifa thugs who came out to play with homemade flamethrowers but you likely also had random locals who just wanted to hoot at the Nazis and tell them they weren’t welcome in Charlottesville. That’s not as true on the other side. If there were garden-variety protesters opposed to removing the Robert E. Lee statue among the torch-bearers screaming about “blood and soil” on Friday night, I missed the evidence. The organizer of the Saturday rally is an alt-righter who described it explicitly in racial terms: “We’re trying to do a pro-white demonstration.” Who were the “very fine people” marching alongside dudes carrying swastika flags this weekend who are so upset about the Lee statue being threatened that they’re willing to participate in a Nazi photo op even though they’re not Nazis themselves?
You don’t have to get specific about Trump or the rallygoers to find what he said tone-deaf, though. The Charlottesville event was intended to be a show of strength by white nationalists. Given the country’s history of slavery and white supremacy through the Jim Crow era, under which black Americans still alive today lived and suffered, it would have been proper for any president to single out white nationalists for special rebuke. And as a matter of pure politics, it would have been smart of Trump to place himself on the same side as the majority that despises alt-right attitudes. All he could do was equivocate, though. What about the “alt-left”? He’ll have many opportunities as president to lambast antifa, I’m sure, as they’re bound to go berserk whenever a conservative shows up on campus. This was his opportunity to lambast the alt-right during their moment in the national spotlight. He whiffed.