Responding to chaos surrounding a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., both President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have condemned hate and violence.
“There is no place for this kind of violence in America,” Trump said.
“No good comes from violence,” the First Lady said.
The President’s tweet came after violence had been mounting for hours. He has since made a brief public statement, saying in part: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides…on many sides.”
Some commentators immediately highlighted Trump’s apparent equivalency between white supremacists and those who opposed them.
Others saw Trump’s condemning tweet as a betrayal. Earlier today, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke declared that the Charlottesville rally “represents a turning point for the people of this country . . . we’re gonna fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.” On Twitter, he later described the President’s condemnation as an “attack.”
Trump’s public stance against the Charlottesville rally is deeply complicated by his popularity among white nationalists of various stripes, many of whom were early and enthusiastic supporters of him during his candidacy for the presidency. Trump is considered to have launched his political career by arguing that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., an idea passionately embraced by the extreme right despite evidence to the contrary. Trump kicked off his presidential campaign with statements condemning Mexican immigrants as criminals, and has frequently interacted with white nationalists on social media. Trump infamously hesitated when asked to disavow Duke and the Klan, later blaming a faulty earpiece for the gaffe.
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The President has been criticized for normalizing violence, particularly the racially-tinged variety. During his 2016 candidacy, Trump encouraged and praised violence at his rallies, some of it against anti-racist protestors. Last month, he encouraged police to treat detained suspects less gently, suggesting he had little sympathy for the disproportionately African-American victims of police violence.
Trump has also given White House roles to people who have been criticized for encouraging white nationalist thought.
Chief White House advisor Steve Bannon, for instance, has been publicly described as a “white supremacist” by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Bannon is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, and once called the site a “platform for the alt-right.” That term is a rebranding of white nationalism coined by Richard Spencer, a movement leader who was scheduled to speak in Charlottesville on Saturday. Bannon oversaw the creation of a special section devoted to “Black Crime” on Breitbart, and a Breitbart article co-authored by disgraced alt-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos last year praised Spencer as “dangerously bright.”
Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant and terrorism advisor to President Trump, reportedly has ties to anti-Semitic organizations abroad. Just days ago, Gorka made statements dismissive of the threat of white supremacist violence, which has killed more Americans since 9/11 than Islamic terrorism. That follows reports in February that the administration would de-emphasize counterterrorism work against racially-motivated extremists, a move some white supremacists hailed.
Stephen Miller is another senior White House advisor and architect of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. In a media appearance on August 3rd, Miller defended the idea of limiting immigration to English-speakers, and seemed to argue that a poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to America didn’t reflect American values because it was “added later.” Miller has been described by personal acquaintances as “an unabashed racist.”
These figures make up only one of many factions in the White House, and they often clash with more moderate players, among them Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner. And it has always been unclear whether Trump himself—a New Yorker who once enjoyed high approval ratings among nonwhite Americans—truly shares such extreme views.
But many have argued that Trump’s hesitancy to condemn or distance himself from white nationalism has emboldened the movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center described Trump as “electrifying” the extreme right, and his election was followed by a documented rise in both hate crimes and hate groups like those gathered in Charlottesville today.