It isn’t remarkable for a president to denounce racism, particularly after a white nationalist rally that turned deadly. But the timing of President Trump’s comments on Monday, rebuking racist groups for their participation in Saturday’s violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., was newsworthy.
“Racism is evil,” Trump said. “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.”
In his initial response to the tragedy, Trump condemned violence “on many sides,” flattening the differences between the rallygoers and counterprotesters, drawing sharp criticism from many corners — including members of his own party.
The path to Trump’s Monday statement is the latest in a line of Trump’s decidedly fuzzy responses to racist groups. While Trump seemed more willing to distance himself from racist groups long before his political career, the past decade has shown a man apparently ambivalent about consistently drawing a clear line between himself and groups that espouse racist ideologies.
Before Trump became a politician
Trump’s rhetoric well before his political career was more forceful in denouncing racist groups, but it also in retrospect contained the seeds of his 2016-era rhetoric.
In a 1991 interview, for example, CNN’s Larry King asked Trump his thoughts about David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. Duke had recently gotten nearly 39 percent of the vote in a Louisiana gubernatorial election.
“Did the David Duke thing bother you? Fifty-five percent of the whites in Louisiana voted for him,” King said to Trump.
TRUMP: I hate seeing what it represents, but I guess it just shows there’s a lot of hostility in this country. There’s a tremendous amount of hostility in the United States.
Mr. TRUMP: It’s anger. I mean, that’s an anger vote. People are angry about what’s happened. People are angry about the jobs. If you look at Louisiana, they’re really in deep trouble. When you talk about the East Coast — It’s not the East Coast. It’s the East Coast, the middle coast, the West Coast …
In a 2000 interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Trump was more direct. Lauer was asking Trump about his decision not to seek the Reform Party nomination for president.
LAUER: When you say the [Reform P]arty is self-destructing, what do you see as the biggest problem with the Reform Party right now?
TRUMP: Well, you’ve got David Duke just joined — a bigot, a racist, a problem. I mean, this is not exactly the people you want in your party.
And in a 2000 op-ed further explaining that decision not to run, he made fun of what he called the “fringe element” that embraces conspiracy theories.
“When I held a reception for Reform Party leaders in California, the room was crowded with Elvis look-alikes, resplendent in various campaign buttons and anxious to give me a pamphlet explaining the Swiss-Zionist conspiracy to control America,” Trump said. He later was more explicit in denouncing Duke and other extremists, adding, “I leave the Reform Party to David Duke, Pat Buchanan and Lenora Fulani. That is not company I wish to keep.”
Still, even decades ago, Trump’s statements contained glimmers of his 2016 rhetoric. In that 1991 King interview, Trump said he was against what the Duke vote “represents,” but he also made it about a broad, nonspecific “anger” that was particularly connected to “the jobs.”
Fast-forward 20 years, and Trump had grown more brazen. He eventually became a standard-bearer for the birther movement, which alleged that President Barack Obama was born in a foreign country (he wasn’t). In 2011, Trump announced that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to look into Obama’s birth — that gave new prominence to the already years-old movement.
Embracing birtherism meant emboldening people in places like Stormfront, which calls itself a “white nationalist community,” where readers embraced birtherism. And even after years of fact checks, it took until September 2016 for Trump to admit that Obama was indeed born in the U.S.
Trump’s ties in the 2016 campaign
During the presidential campaign, Trump at times denounced racist ideas and organizations, but his campaign also did not appear to make avoiding associations with those groups a high priority.
“Throughout the campaign he played an odd footsie with these people,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
On one hand, for example, his campaign fired a staff member over racist Facebook posts. Likewise, he early in the campaign supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol. And in October 2016, campaign spokesman Jason Miller told Politico that the campaign didn’t want the support of white nationalist groups.
“We have rejected and rebuked any groups and individuals associated with a message of hate and will continue to do so,” he said. “We have never intentionally engaged directly or indirectly with such groups and have no intention of ever doing so, and in fact, we’ve gone a step further and said that we don’t want votes from people who think this way.”
But then, that pushback often came amid other, mixed signals. For example, Duke in February 2016 said on his radio show that “voting against Donald Trump at this point, is really treason to your heritage” and called for his listeners to volunteer for the Trump campaign: “Go in there, you’re gonna meet people who are going to have the same kind of mindset that you have.”
Trump at first said he “didn’t know anything about David Duke” (despite those comments he had made in 1991 and 2000). He told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. … If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow them if I thought there was something wrong.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump had some sort of grand strategy in mind. But those retweets, along with the delay in disavowing Duke, imply at minimum a carelessness in avoiding those associations — associations that had been plaguing his campaign.
In fighting allegations of emboldening white nationalist groups, the Trump administration has at times chosen not to forcefully defend itself or rebuke those groups but rather to simply point the finger elsewhere. This is called whataboutism, a form of propaganda associated with Cold War-era Russia.
For example, in August 2016, Trump twice retweeted tweets connecting Hillary Clinton to the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who had been a member of the Klan. (Byrd had apologized over the years and was even applauded by the NAACP upon his death in 2010 for doing so.) Similarly, midcampaign, Trump often chose to accuse Clinton of starting birtherism.
Rather than addressing issues head-on, this tactic is a way of absolving oneself, as one Russia expert told NPR.
“You’re saying that in the negotiations we have, that no one is perfect, and no one can claim to be, and as such, what this does is let you off the hook,” said Vadim Nikitin.
The Trump administration did something similar in its initial response to the Charlottesville attacks.
“What about the leftist mob. Just as violent if not more so,” said a senior White House official, according to Vanity Fair correspondent Gabriel Sherman.
Trump himself attempted to shift attention away from his own words and toward media coverage on Monday. Asked by CNN correspondent Jim Acosta to answer questions about Charlottesville since Trump had promised a press conference, Trump said answering questions “doesn’t bother me at all. But I like real news. You’re fake news.”
Emboldening extremist groups
There could be a litany of reasons why any given person who supports white nationalist ideology embraced Trump. It wasn’t just retweets and slow responses to people like Duke; Trump promoted policies that they could get behind, including restrictive immigration policy, as well as the travel ban imposed on certain Muslim-majority countries. His “America First” slogan was in fact associated with the Reform Party that Trump denounced as “fringe” and has deeper isolationist and anti-Semitic roots, as NPR’s Ron Elving has reported.
While Trump at times chose to distance himself from extremists, many of them nevertheless saw themselves as his natural constituencies. When NPR’s Steve Inskeep in 2016 asked Duke, then a Senate candidate in Louisiana, whether Trump voters were his voters, Duke was emphatic.
“Well, of course they are!” Duke said. “Because I represent the ideas of preserving this country and the heritage of this country, and I think Trump represents that as well.”
During the campaign, prominent leaders among these extremist groups likewise declared their allegiance to Trump and explained why they felt emboldened.
“I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” Richard Spencer told the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, but he added why he thought Trump might appeal to some of those people: Trump espoused the idea, Spencer said, that “white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it.”
Monday on Duke’s radio show, there were glimmers of the empowerment the so-called alt-right now feels. Duke was joined by guest Mike Enoch (a pseudonym for Michael Peinovich, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center), founder of the website The Right Stuff, which has denigrated minority groups including Jews and African-Americans. Enoch warned the Trump administration about castigating those alt-right groups too much.
“Don’t cuck. You don’t get anything for it,” he said. “You don’t win and you alienate your own people.”
(“Cuck” is a common insult in these circles, deriving from the word “cuckold” — it likens someone whose views are deemed insufficiently hard-line to a man who lets another man sleep with his wife.)
Enoch said this as he and Duke criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for, in their opinion, coming out too strongly against the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville. That would do nothing but alienate supporters, Enoch added, without gaining Sessions any support among centrists or those on the left.
“Once you’ve been identified by the left as an enemy, and Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump absolutely have been, you don’t get any credit for cucking, for attacking your own side,” he said.