AUG. 15, 2017 — President Donald Trump did not deliver a modern Gettysburg Address on Monday. He didn’t change the national conversation about race. Rather, he repudiated the white supremacy movement in a brief televised statement about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The sentences that mattered: “Racism is evil,” the president said from the White House. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”
The country needed to hear those words, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.
Yet what Trump declared as the truth on Monday also was the truth on Saturday, when protests over the planned removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville spun out of control. It was the truth a month ago, a year ago, a century ago, because America struggles with racism, prejudice and intolerance. Somehow, though, Trump needed 48 hours from the rioting aftermath to go beyond a measured statement about wrongdoing on “many sides” of the ugly protests to specifically identify white hate groups as the villains in Virginia on Saturday.
What gives with this president?
Trump usually has no problem distinguishing friends from enemies. Get on his bad side and you’ll know it. Monday morning, for example, Trump attacked pharmacy industry CEO Kenneth Frazier almost immediately after Frazier resigned from a White House manufacturing council over the president’s initial wishy-washy statements on Charlottesville.
Therefore it was obvious over the weekend that Trump was holding back from placing full blame on white nationalist hoodlums for spewing bile in Virginia and setting off riots. Amid that chaos, an Ohio man allegedly rammed the crowd in his car, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of people. But Trump couldn’t raise his voice against the Nazis and other white nationalists who marched.
There are theories about the president’s initial reticence: Did he perceive racists to be part of his political base? Fail to recognize there was an urgent need for the president to speak as the nation’s conscience? Many observers have criticized Trump for lacking empathy. He struggles to honor the motives of political opponents, such as during the campaign when he attacked the parents of a fallen U.S. soldier because they criticized him at the Democratic convention.
Put frankly, Trump will disappoint anyone who expects him to behave as America’s unwavering moral beacon. He’s hit or miss on these sensitive issues, requiring some combination of heeding the right advice and making course corrections when instincts fail. That’s what happened regarding Charlottesville. He said on Saturday the Virginia tragedy required reflection on issues of race “to see what we’re doing wrong.” Then he took his own advice, or somebody else’s: He got the message his presidency was in danger of being tarred by allegations of racial intolerance unless he made it clear who the bad guys were in Virginia.
Just as important, Trump’s Justice Department took forceful action, opening a federal civil rights hate crime investigation of the deadly car attack. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that attack meets the definition of domestic terrorism. And he said the feds will “take the most vigorous action to protect the rights of people like Heather Heyer to protest against racism and bigotry.”
Words and actions from the White House now seem aligned in the aftermath to a despicable day of violence. The White House gets no applause for doing what should be obvious. Instead we’ll keep a close eye on all that comes next.