On Saturday afternoon, neo-Nazis; white nationalists; and open-carrying, camo-wearing militia members combined forces at a Charlottesville, Virginia, rally to “Unite the Right.” This congregation of white people who love the president of the United States and hate racial, ethnic, and religious minorities chanted “blood and soil” and extended their arms in stiff salutes. The rally culminated in the death of at least one person when the driver of a gray Dodge Challenger plowed through a crowd of counter-protesters, seemingly with the intent to maim and injure.
On Nov. 19, 1863, as the Union and Confederate armies waged a war to determine whether black people were property, President Abraham Lincoln stood up at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and articulated his vision of what the United States should be. He called for a promise that “these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
On Aug. 12, 2017, Donald Trump stood up at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and All Lives Matter’d a Nazi rally. “We’re closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia,” Trump said. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. On many sides.”
He then said those three words again—“On many sides”—as if to emphasize that this throwaway phrase was in fact the only bit of his short speech that he truly believed in. He did not talk about white supremacy, and he did not note the prevalence of racist chants. The troubles in Charlottesville, the president said, were everyone’s fault. Or, to put it another way, nobody in particular was more responsible than anyone else for what happened in Virginia this weekend. Not the president. Not the party that enabled him. Not even those who idolize Adolf Hitler.
Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist violence, coming on the heels of his silence in the aftermath of last week’s mosque bombing in Minnesota, is just the latest affirmation of his fundamental immorality. The president’s racist, anti-Semitic, Muslim-hating acolytes heard the words Trump didn’t say on Saturday. They know they have an ally in the White House, a man who will abet anyone who abets his own hold on power.
As a candidate for office and now as president, Trump has made it very clear who his friends are. When Joe Scarborough said in 2015 that Vladimir Putin “kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Trump answered “that our country does plenty of killing, too.” Call it moral relativism or whataboutism or false equivalence. So long as an atrocity is perpetrated by someone who’s said nice things about Donald Trump, it’s not really an atrocity.
“It’s been going on for a long time in our country,” Trump said on Saturday, speaking of the “hatred, bigotry, and violence” on display in Charlottesville. “Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time.”
There was no reason for him to invoke Obama, except that there is always a reason to invoke Obama. The politician who rose to prominence by casting doubts on the legitimacy of the first black president would have you believe that he himself is blameless for whatever unnamed, mysterious force may be dividing this country. Or, if Trump is to blame, then so is the 44th president, and so are the counter-protesters who took to the streets of Charlottesville to tell a band of white supremacists that they may represent what the country has been but will never embody what America should be. The counter-protesters, those marching for the proposition that all men are created equal—they’re apparently part of the problem, too. “On many sides,” Trump said. “On many sides.”
On a day that called for the president to take a stand, he instead made a perverse call for unity. “I love the people of our country,” Trump said at the end of his Bedminster Address. “I love all of the people of our country. We’re going to make America great again. But we’re going to make it great for all of the people of the United States of America.”
The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville heard that call, and so did the posters on the Daily Stormer. “On many sides,” Trump said. These are not anodyne words. They are dangerous ones. On Saturday, the president had the chance to tell the nation what it is he does and doesn’t believe in. That’s exactly what he did.