This past weekend I couldn't help but think of the speech Hillary Clinton gave last August in which she went after Donald Trump's connections to the alt-right. "Of course there's always been a paranoid fringe in our politics, steeped in racial resentment," she said. "But it's never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone. Until now." The speech wasn't particularly well-received, and most of the discussion of its content focused on whether it might persuade Trump's avid supporters to desert him — which of course they didn't. The Trump campaign knew that, and wasn't worried. As Stephen Bannon told reporter Joshua Green at the time, "We polled the race stuff and it doesn't matter. It doesn't move anyone who isn't already in her camp."
So Trump felt little need to distance himself from the collection of white nationalists, white supremacists, and outright Nazis who were so thrilled by his candidacy. And in the wake of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville, we saw a repetition of a now-familiar cycle. First, there's an incident or flare-up of right-wing hate, seemingly inspired by Trump. His response is to ignore it, dismiss it, or give it tacit support. Criticism — beginning on the left but spreading even to some within his own party — then gets louder and louder. Finally, with the controversy not going away, Trump makes a statement, usually written by others and read with all the sincerity of a hostage video, in which he expresses what ought to be the baseline values of any human being with a shred of morality.
We saw it when David Duke, America's foremost former KKK leader, endorsed Trump. The GOP nominee professed ignorance ("I don't know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists"), but after repeated questioning finally said, "David Duke endorsed me? Okay, all right. I disavow, okay?" We saw it with the rash of bomb threats directed at synagogues and Jewish organizations after he took office; when a reporter asked what the government would be doing about it, Trump responded, "Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism — the least racist person." After repeated criticism, Trump paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum and said, with characteristic eloquence, "I think it's horrible. Whether it's anti-Semitism or racism or any — anything you wanna think about having to do with the divide. Anti-Semitism is, likewise, it's just terrible."
And after the attack in Charlottesville, Trump made his now-infamous statement that "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides," without noting that the murderous, violent Nazis and the people protesting them might not be on the same moral plane. After two days of disgusted condemnations from even some in his own party, Trump went before the cameras to read a statement that finally identified the perpetrators.
One way to interpret Trump's approach to white supremacists is that he cynically panders for their support. Whether you think that's the case, or that he agrees with them deep down, it's clear that Trump has his own version of the "permanent campaign" that pundits began lamenting back when Bill Clinton was president. Trump certainly acts as though the 2016 campaign never ended, and not only with the way he keeps bringing up his 2016 opponent and reminding us of how losing the popular vote was actually the most fantastic victory in the history of American politics. His 2020 campaign committee (yes, there already is one) just released an ad attacking "the president's enemies."
But more than that, Trump's permanent campaign is about whom he sees as his constituency and the people whose opinions and interests he needs to concern himself with. Let's not forget that he got to be president by ignoring those who told him to reach across the aisle and soften the most repugnant parts of his personality and his appeal. Hatred, fear, racial resentment, xenophobia — they all turned out to be effective tools. Even if they could only get him 46 percent of the vote, that was enough.
And as president, he has provided no evidence that he sees himself as representing the country as a whole, that all Americans are in his charge whether they voted for him or not. Everything he does and says is aimed at the people who already support him. Everything he does suggests that his only goal is keeping his base intact.
So if Trump watched the situation in Charlottesville developing, he would have seen a bunch of white supremacists giving Nazi salutes while they shouted "Hail Trump," facing off against a bunch of people who didn't vote for him. How could he condemn his own supporters? The idea that his supporters are the ones in the wrong is something he can't quite wrap his head around. It wouldn't be hard to grasp if he wanted to be president of all of us. But he doesn't seem to want to.