Charlottesville pushes Trump to the margins

The Observer editorial board

At a vigil for Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday in Charlottesville.
At a vigil for Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday in Charlottesville. Courtesy of Brianna Hamblin

In the months leading up to last November’s election, a great many Americans worried that a Donald Trump presidency would embolden the racists who supported him. Their hate had already flared in ugly flashes at campaign rallies and other places, and Trump had been hesitant to disavow it.

This weekend, in Charlottesville, some of our worst fears were realized. On Friday night, white supremacists staged a chilling, torchlit march at the University of Virginia. On Saturday, a violent day of demonstrations ended in a horrifying death. The president, with an opportunity to condemn the hate groups that descended upon Charlottesville, instead blamed the unrest “on many sides.”

The racists rejoiced. This was the moment they had wanted, and the man they had supported helped deliver it.

Then that victory was undercut.

By Sunday night, overwhelming condemnation of bigotry had poured in from across the country, including dozens of statements from Republicans in Washington who explicitly denounced white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Hate – or at least the virulent expression we saw in Charlottesville – had been pushed back to the margins, along with the man who resisted calling it out.

On Monday, Trump finally gave in, calling white supremacists “repugnant,” something he had resisted for three days.

It’s notable the lengths the White House went to over the weekend to take the heat off the president. On Saturday night, in the wake of backlash over Trump’s remarks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an investigation into the weekend’s events. On Sunday, the First Lady, the president’s daughter and, finally, the vice president condemned the hate groups in Charlottesville. On Sunday night, the White House anonymously pointed a finger at “white supremacists” for the violence leading to the death of Heather Heyer.

Those words that needed to be said. But as Americans have come to learn, only Donald Trump speaks for himself.

Be clear about that: The president, who is quick and unafraid to talk about what and whom he dislikes, was reluctant for days to call out racists and bigots. Hate groups got the message. On Saturday, the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer praised the president’s comments. “No condemnation at all,” Andrew Anglin wrote. “Really, really good.”

We also should make no mistake about hate and this country. Despite the strong and heartening words from all corners of Washington this weekend, the threat of deep-rooted racism continues to be very real in America, perhaps more now than anytime in recent decades. We must remain vigilant about identifying it and fighting it, and that begins in the White House, which employs as the president’s chief strategist a virulent nationalist whose Breitbart bigotry has helped fuel the anger we saw in Charlottesville.

Still, we learned something this weekend about the limits of a president’s – at least this president’s – influence. On a bleak Saturday afternoon, the nation feared the power of Donald Trump’s failure to denounce white nationalism. As it turns out, the president and his words were never weaker.