Why Trump Refuses to Call Out Alt-Right Violence
It’s almost impossible to get Donald Trump to criticize one of his supporters. Last March, when former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke supported his campaign, Trump initially declined to disavow him and at one point blamed “a bad earpiece” for his failure to do so. A couple weeks later, when a Trump supporter punched an African-American man at a stadium rally, Trump said the man “obviously loves the country” and suggested he might pay his legal bills.
And, of course, after Saturday’s alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead, Trump blamed “many sides” and refused to single out white supremacists and neo-Nazis, even as a growing chorus of Republican elected officials called on him to do so.
One reason for Trump’s mystifying refusal to criticize the alt-right racism in Charlottesville is that he came under similar pressure during the campaign, didn’t buckle, and still won the election.
Last August, Trump hired Steve Bannon to take over his presidential campaign. Bannon was executive chairman of Breitbart News, the hard-right populist website that he had described a month earlier as “the platform for the alt-right.” Seeking to highlight Trump’s unsavory connection to racists and anti-Semites, Hillary Clinton gave an August 25th speech in Reno, Nevada, explicitly warning about the danger of embracing white supremacy. “Trump,” Clinton declared, “is reinforcing harmful stereotypes and offering a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters. It’s a disturbing preview of what kind of president he’d be…These are race‐baiting ideas, anti‐Muslim and anti‐immigrant ideas, anti‐woman--all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt‐right.’” She added: “A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party.”
Most Americans had never heard the term “alt-right” until Clinton highlighted it in her speech. “The term was just beginning to enter the political lexicon,” a Clinton adviser told me, in an interview for my book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency. “We thought it would be catnip that would fuel people’s curiosity [about the alt‐right] and what Bannon’s place was in that world. Trump’s campaign was built on stoking xenophobic impulses, so you could take a process story on Bannon’s hire and turn it into a bigger critique of how Trump was uniquely unacceptable.”
In one sense, Clinton’s speech had the desired effect: it sparked a nationwide debate about alt-right racism. But it didn’t prompt Trump to fire Bannon or distance himself in any way from his alt-right supporters. And as a political attack, it plainly failed. A month later, Trump’s poll numbers had improved. As Bannon told me in Devil’s Bargain, “We polled the race stuff and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t move anyone who isn’t already in her camp.”
It’s not clear why Trump has so far refused to call out the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville whose rally produced deadly violence. He has come under withering criticism not only from Republican senators like Orrin Hatch and Cory Gardner, but also from conservative media outlets like Fox News and the New York Post.
On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence offered an explicit condemnation of the Charlottesville instigators during a visit to Colombia. "We have no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK,” Pence said at a news conference with Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos. “These dangerous fringe groups have no place in American public life and in the American debate, and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms," he said.
Having survived Clinton’s attack over alt-right racism, Trump may simply feel impervious to the pressure to speak out more forcefully about Charlottesville. But the differences between the two episodes are significant. Last year, Trump was being attacked by a Democratic political opponent; the basis of the attack was a website most people don’t read; and the specter of alt-right violence that Clinton invoked in her speech was theoretical.
Charlottesville was different in every respect: The bloodshed and deadly assault were vividly on display for all to see. Those responsible for it were not Democrats, but Trump supporters (some marchers shouted “Heil Trump!”). And this time, the calls for Trump to show moral courage and condemn the Nazis and white supremacists are coming from his fellow-Republicans.
Trump may find himself forced to say something more specific or he may continue to refuse, as he did in the campaign. But it’s hard to imagine his poll numbers improving in the wake of the tragedy, as they did last August. The difference between the two episodes couldn’t be more stark — or more obvious to everyone except Trump.