The President of the United States is not a Nazi, in the sense of being a member of the historical National Socialist German Workers’ Party or any of its subsequent pale imitators. But as he made clear during his August 15 press conference, Donald Trump is a Nazi sympathizer, in the narrow yet very literal sense of showing sympathy to modern-day Nazis.
Trump’s remarks came in the context of the August 12th white-nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that started with Nazi salutes and slogans and ended in one murder and dozens of malicious woundings. As word of the happenings — and, more specifically, videos and images — fanned out, people began to wonder if Trump could or would do one of the most basic things presidents have done since World War II: issue a denunciation of Nazis. Surely even Trump, whose skills in split-second denunciation are famed all across the digital landscape, and who responded almost immediately to the Aug. 17 vehicular attack in Barcelona, could manage that.
Donald Trump is a Nazi sympathizer, in the narrow yet very literal sense of showing sympathy to modern-day Nazis.
Turns out, no. A man who has taken to his Twitter account to spit on actresses, political rivals, and entire other nations — a man, moreover, whose entire campaign for president centered around the talking point of calling out “radical Islamic terrorism” by name — could not, in the wake of an actual murder, bring himself to condemn white-supremacist terrorism, instead backing himself into the corner of “many sides” contributing to the Charlottesville violence. Two days later, he went before cameras to read what was clearly someone else’s statement; staring ahead, dead-eyed, he was teleprompted the following:
"Racism is evil, 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 condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.”
Sure, he delivered the lines with all the enthusiasm of a hostage listing his captors’ demands, but at least he said them. At the very least, his comments enraged rally attendee and former Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke, which should be the bare minimum for any 21st-century statement on race relations. All he had to do was answer a few questions about why it took so long, and he would be in the clear. But with the self-destructive impulsiveness that formerly was mistaken for strategy, Trump charged hard into the breach. The day wasn’t even over before he was whining about how the “Fake News Media” would never be satisfied (which is, as their treatment of President Obama should remind us, the one thing the media cannot afford to be).
A man who has taken to his Twitter account to spit on actresses, political rivals, and entire other nations could not, in the wake of an actual murder, bring himself to condemn white-supremacist terrorism.
The next day, at a rare press conference following an event meant to be about infrastructure, Trump flipped out and went way off script. He didn’t so much reverse his prior statements as wrap them up in a big bundle and set them on fire. He claimed first that his original Saturday (Aug. 12) statement was “fine,” and that he — Donald Trump! — needed to “wait a little while to get the facts.” Then he lied about the mother of the deceased thanking him for his comments. Next he refused again to say that a vehicular homicide, using tactics borrowed from ISIS, was “terrorism.” Finally, he returned to and elaborated on his “many sides” rhetoric:
Not all of those people were neo Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. . . . You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch. . . . I do think there's blame, yes, I think there's blame on both sides. . . .
But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group . . . protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I'm sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people. Neo Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. Because I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit. So I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country. A horrible moment. But there are two sides.
He finished on a bizarre if characteristic note by pimping his home and winery near Charlottesville.
Setting aside for a moment his equal apportionment of blame to “both sides,” let’s review what the “very fine people” who Trump insists were just “protesting very quietly” actually did this past weekend. (This Vice mini-documentary provides an excellent summary of the weekend’s events, presenting the white supremacists as they chose to present themselves.)
With the self-destructive impulsiveness that formerly was mistaken for strategy, Trump charged hard into the breach.
The festivities started the night before the scheduled rally with a very unscheduled parade through the campus of the University of Virginia. The marchers made Nazi salutes and chanted old favorites like “Blood and soil” as well as new ones like the alternating “You will not replace us / Jews will not replace us!” Almost all of them bore torches — not the rag-around-a-stick type, but backyard Tiki torches, a touch that might seem comical until you remember that they still serve quite adequately as weapons. As the group approached the Rotunda (if you have any mental image of UVA, it’s probably that building), many began swinging their torches at the small knots of summer-school students, faculty, and staff there to protest their presence; one librarian who took a torch to the neck while protecting students would later develop a blood clot that led to a stroke.
After the police finally showed up, the march moved on toward the supposed turf of their protest, the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park. Along the way, they surrounded a historic black church where a community prayer meeting was in progress. Once at the Park, they found themselves opposed by a small group of students who linked arms around the statue in nonviolent protest. The torchwielders again surrounded the group, chanting Nazi and racist slogans, some sucker-punching the unarmed students, others spraying them with mace and pepper spray. One young counterprotester in a wheelchair was pelted with kerosene cans and threatened with torches, before countering streams of mace and pepper spray — and ultimately, again, the police’s late arrival — spoiled the show.
The next day, the official, permitted “protest” was slated for noon, but the marchers got an early start parading around Charlottesville’s redbrick downtown. In that crowd, the predominant outfit seemed to be a white polo shirt with khakis and a red cap, likely in tribute to the president’s golfing attire, but there was also an assortment of white-power logos, Klan slogans, paramilitary gear including an array of openly-carried semiautomatic rifles — and, naturally, plenty of Nazi paraphernalia, including t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes, references to the 14 Words and 88 Precepts, Iron Crosses, Imperial Eagles, Black Suns, and swastikas on armbands, patches, and at least one full-sized flag.
Many began swinging their torches at the small knots of summer-school students, faculty, and staff there to protest their presence.
If any of the “very fine people” there solely to support the Lee statue seemed concerned about their cohort in any way, they definitely didn’t show it. Or maybe they somehow totally missed the above, plus all the continued yelling of anti-Semitic slogans, plus the occasional “White lives matter” or “Fuck you faggots” to keep the repertoire fresh. Certainly those fine people weren’t involved when their fellow statue-protestors bore down on an interfaith pacifist group and had to be repelled by antifascist counterprotestors. And they must not have been there when a splinter group brutally beat a young black man in a parking garage, necessitating eight staples in his head.
Well before noon, the event was more street fight than march, and the city tried to move the actual rally to another park, further away from downtown. (They had actually tried to do so two days earlier, in a legally dubious move.) Many of the groups boarded vans or buses they had chartered for the occasion; many more had to rely on their own transport. One of these latter, James Alex Fields, Jr., had spent the day in white polo uniform, rallying with Vanguard America, whose use of “Blood and Soil” as permanent slogan made them a natural choice for someone described by nearly everyone who knew him as a Nazi-military fanboy. In trying to exit the area, Fields turned into one of the wide alleyways crossing over the pedestrian Downtown Mall, only to see at the other end a large crowd of counterprotesters, celebrating the withdrawal of the white supremacist masses. At this point, as video and multiple eyewitness accounts confirm, Fields revved his engine and pointed his Dodge Challenger squarely at the throng.
Estimates vary over the speed of the car when he struck the crowd; he was going at least 30 down a corridor meant for a maximum of 5 MPH. What is clear is that he hit several people before crashing into the back of another car, which jolted forward into a minivan, trapping people in between the various vehicles. Fields then threw the car in reverse, trailing blood streaks and his front bumper up the pedestrian alley, before squealing away back at the top. Heather Heyer died soon after from the injuries she sustained; 19 more would be sent to the hospital, some in critical condition.
Those "very fine people" must not have been there when a group of marchers brutally beat a young black man in a parking garage, necessitating eight staples in his head.
The videos are shocking, but that shock should be tempered (as Trump would never do) with an acknowledgment that right-wing media outlets and social-media feeds have been talking for years — fantasizing, even — about plowing through crowds of protesting pedestrians. And that’s not just on the fringe: pundits such as Glenn Reynolds have suggested people just “run them over,” then howled with indignation when at the idea that anyone might ever actually take them up on it; GOP-dominated legislatures in a number of states have taken up bills to make it easier to get away with, at best, vehicular manslaughter.
And yet, the president among others (including Stormfront contributor and event organizer Jason Kessler, who a few days after being literally run out of town tweeted that Heyer was a “fat disgusting Communist” whose death was “payback”) expects the counterprotesters to bear an equal share of the blame — if not greater — for the violence at the rally. But while some on the opposite side certainly made use of fists as well as chemical deterrents, they didn’t maliciously wound or murder anyone. You can’t use “both sides” rhetoric to whitewash blood off the streets.
Trump, or someone in his administration with more intelligence, seems to have recognized this in the days since, as evidenced by his pivot to talking solely in terms of the statues and the erasure of history. But hanging that story on the Lee statue already erases Charlottesville history: the monument was installed more than half a century after the Civil War, in a town which saw next to no military action. Like most of the glut of such statues erected during the Jim Crow era (in this case 1924, though commissioned in 1917), it had a lot more to do with peak-power white supremacy than with any scarcely existent Confederate heritage — especially given that in order to build it, they had to ignore the words of Robert E. Lee himself, who did not want any statues or memorials, or indeed any potentially nostalgic evocation of the Confederacy.
Fields then threw the car in reverse, trailing blood streaks and his front bumper up the alley, before squealing away back at the top.
Generally I would expect the Democrats’ stupidity and seeming allergy to advantageous situations would get Trump off the hook. But this time he might have gone a bit too far even for those who have cut him enormous slack (David Duke excepted): CEOs jumped ship from his business panel; handwringing conservative columnists actually took him to task; a few odd-duck GOP congressmen in safe districts actually called him out by name. And yet no one resigned from the administration itself, and if any of the senior GOP leadership said anything on the record, they were at best “protesting very quietly,” leaking statements through surrogates of how angry or saddened they were, without actually themselves saying a thing. So many of them still seem to think, despite the pile of evidence to the contrary, that Trump can be contained or at least mitigated long enough for them to get what they want out of his presidency, and most of what they want is scarcely friendly to a freer society.
There’s no saving any of them; whatever they say in private, publicly they are part of the Trump loyalist base, and they won’t leave until the whole thing is in ashes (probably even then, if they can make a quick jump to a Pence presidency). But libertarians find themselves at perhaps the most important crux in movement history. Those who talked themselves into voting for Trump — not against Clinton, mind you, but for Trump — based on one or another mistaken idea about his future performance in office have had more than enough time for a rethink. His supposed isolationist foreign policy has vanished in the smoke of bombs over Syria and Yemen and hot air over North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. He’s declared himself ready to start a trade war at the drop of a MAGA hat. Any slashes to his domestic budget will be made back up, and then some, by bloat in military spending. His healthcare plan is, per Cato, likely even worse than Obamacare. He’s fed the cruelty and callousness in our nation’s policing and immigration enforcement.
Libertarians who can’t denounce authoritarianism in this case cannot and should not be trusted to do so down the line.
Closer to the White House, Trump’s administration churns through employees faster than his own reality shows did, until now the man who promised to “drain the swamp” finds himself surrounded almost entirely by Goldman Sachs employees and military men. Increasingly isolated and subject to the likes of Gen. John Kelly’s attempted “military” discipline, Trump will become more and more likely to lash out and say whatever comes to mind — and that’s a scary prospect, considering what that has involved in the past, from pre-presidential days till now.
Remember that all this is taking place without a single major terrorist attack on American soil, or a large-scale natural disaster, or an outright war, or any similar scenario so often used to massively increase governmental power. This is the last chance to sever cleanly, to make a break, to toss out a mea culpa — just pick your preferred metaphor. Taking a soft line on neo-Nazis is pretty bad, but it’s only going to get worse from here; libertarians who can’t denounce authoritarianism in this case cannot and should not be trusted to do so down the line. There are political battles to be had down the road with liberals and — gasp — socialists, but for right now there’s a common foe. Let’s work to take care of what we can and survive, or else be counted among those “very fine people” for whom history will find labels far more accurate and far less flattering.