Many of the president’s opponents are celebrating a silver lining they see in this week’s racial ugliness: that Donald Trump’s supposed longstanding alliance with avowed racists is finally on full display. What they “knew all along” Is now explicit, they think, so it will be easier to bring this infernal presidency to an end.
They’re mistaken. Liberal and media voices have been stoking the president’s racial animus, not exposing it. That’s because Donald Trump is not necessarily a racist at his core. He’s a narcissist under siege, and narcissists under siege gravitate to whoever’s still praising them – however despicable they may be.
A normal president would have condemned Saturday’s murderous, white supremacist rally by appealing to our nation’s highest ideals. He would remind Americans of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who overcame racism with peaceful resistance.
Instead, Trump’s initial condemnation referred to “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” It’s unclear how much he then knew about the march’s details, but the answer is probably little, since it wasn’t a story about him. (Trump resists even reading briefings without his name in them). Nonetheless, his initial formulation (what, exactly, were the counter-protesters “bigoted” against?) was outrageous, and was swiftly condemned from left and right. Politicians, columnists, and average citizens would not tolerate any moral equivalence between the worst kind of Americans and those who oppose them.
So Trump was forced to eat crow – as much crow as he can ever swallow – with a statement calling racism “evil.” But a close reading of the statement underscores this president’s allergy to admit making a mistake. Desperate to maintain the illusion of consistency, he called the statement an “update, saying “as I said on Saturday” before he specifically condemned the KKK and neo-Nazis.
Strategically, that should have been enough for the president’s critics. His statement screamed insincerity, and anti-racists would of course never let any normal politician get away with the White House version of a reluctant kindergartner’s “Sorry.”
But Trump is not a normal politician, and maintaining the nation’s racial (and other) sanity requires abandoning purity and finding ways to “play” Donald Trump without abandoning any principles. It’s too important, and luckily it’s not that hard.
The smartest anti-racist response to Trump’s condemnation of evil would have been: “We are exceedingly grateful to the president’s forceful condemnation of the white supremacist marchers, and we look forward to his continuing leadership toward an American future in which such protests are unthinkable.”
Instead, Trump’s opponents (understandably) declared his turnaround too little, too late – and that was their mistake. Yesterday, President Trump doubled down on his initial remarks in an ominous news conference. He spoke again about “blame on both sides”; fabricated a hateful and violent “alt-left” that supposedly “came charging with clubs in their hands” and – most alarmingly – described some of the hateful anti-black marchers as “very fine people.”
Trump has no deep convictions other than his own near-Messianic greatness. He meant it when he described himself as “the least racist person that you have ever met” and the greatest president since FDR – or maybe it’s Lincoln. He gloms on to praise from any corner, exulting yesterday in a “beautiful” letter from the mother of Saturday’s martyr: “I thought it was terrific. Under the kind of stress that she is under and the heartache that she is under, I thought putting out that statement to me was really something I won’t forget.”
Right now, praise for Trump is coming from only one direction – American racists starting to edge out of their caves. That’s very dangerous with this president. America is no exception to history’s lesson that open hatred tends to snowball. This week’s single rally between president and haters must not become a cycle.
For God’s sakes, Trump opponents, don’t let your attacks on his “Nazism” become a prophecy. Find anything at all you can praise him for, and help end his sense of siege. Donald Trump has FBI agents, tax officials, immigration authorities, diplomats, and the United States Marines working for him. We cannot bear more news like yesterday’s. Set aside your moral purity before it’s too late.