Like all politicians, presidents spend a good deal of their time talking. Most of what they say is barely worth remembering—banal interviews, comments before or after a meeting, inconsequential press conferences, welcoming remarks to a foreign delegation or champion sports team—but on rare occasions, the country looks to the president for rhetoric that unifies and uplifts the nation, creating shared meaning out of critical events, particularly tragic ones. At those moments, words matter and the president's character can reveal itself.
And boy, did Donald Trump's character ever reveal itself this past weekend.
As we stand back in wonder at just what a repugnant human being now sits in the Oval Office, we need to keep reminding ourselves that his sins (of both omission and commission) are not his alone. Many Republicans have stepped up to disagree with him about whether neo-Nazis and white supremacists are actually worthy of condemnation, which we should acknowledge. Yet Donald Trump's moral stench covers all who endorsed him, all who have defended him, and all who saw him as the vehicle through which they could achieve their own goals. They can take the brave stance that Nazis are bad, but they helped bring us to this point, and they can't wash away their responsibility for the horrors we now witness with a few tweets.
As you surely know by now, a collection of alt-right lowlifes, white supremacists, and outright Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, whereupon they were met with a sizeable counter-protest. After one of the rightists drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman, and injuring dozens, Trump gave a statement in which he said this:
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, this has been going on for a long, long time.
On many sides. That was his reaction to a rally where white supremacists gave Nazi salutes and shouted "Hail Trump!" A rally where former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke appeared and told reporters that the event "fulfills the promises of Donald Trump." Where an act of terrorism and murder took place. On many sides. He somehow wasn't able to clearly condemn white supremacists—and for good measure he threw in a line about how we should "cherish our history," which sounded an awful lot like a shout-out to neo-Confederates. You'll be shocked to learn that his comments about Charlottesville were praised by the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication.
And why wouldn't they be? There's no doubt that every alt-righter and white supremacist and neo-Nazi celebrates Donald Trump—they celebrated his campaign, they celebrated his election, and they celebrate his presidency. They celebrated the fact that his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, came to the Trump campaign from running a white nationalist website he described as "the platform for the alt-right." They celebrated when he tweeted out racist memes, and when he promised to build a wall and keep out Muslims, and when he attacked a judge for being Hispanic, and when he told African Americans that their lives were such a living hell that they might as well vote for him. They celebrated their newfound prominence, that in Trump's America they feel freer than they have in decades to openly espouse their ideology of racist hate.
Nor should we forget that Trump transformed himself from a vaguely comical reality TV star into a political force by becoming the nation's foremost advocate of a racist conspiracy theory about Barack Obama's birthplace, nor that he layered on top of that more racist conspiracy theories about how Obama couldn't have gotten into Harvard Law School on merit. So when Trump sees an act of white supremacist terrorism and blames "many sides," we may be disgusted and angry, but we aren't surprised at all.
Many Republicans excused their own support for Trump by expressing the belief that once he took office, the weight of the presidency would transform him into a different person than the walking collection of character flaws and rancid beliefs we saw before us. He'd mature, he'd become serious, he'd grow and change. Trump himself said the same thing: "With the exception of the late great Abraham Lincoln," he'd say to the laughter and cheers of his most troglodytic supporters, "I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office, that I can tell you." But in office, not only hasn't he become a better version of himself, if anything he's gotten worse.
It wasn't too long ago that conservatives demanded that politicians display more "moral clarity" when dealing with external threats. Yet today, they look at the White House and see nothing but nuance. Sure, the president may be an ignorant halfwit with the impulse control of a toddler, but on the other hand he'll sign a tax cut, so we can't criticize him too harshly. And where is Trump's moral clarity? He'll rain insults down on talk show hosts, or on celebrities he doesn't like, or on a department store that won't carry his daughter's fashion line, but faced with actual goddamn Nazis, he retreats to the ground of moral equivalence. "Many sides."
Generations of Republicans used dog-whistle appeals to racial resentment in order to win office, but most at least pretended that they didn't want the support of the most noxious corners of the white supremacist right. Donald Trump can't even bring himself to pretend. And this is nothing new—we knew all about this when he was running for president and the vast majority of Republicans lined up behind him. That is a stain they should never be allowed to erase.