It was the hardest thing to mess up. President Trump, responding to an act of white supremacist domestic terrorism, in which one American was killed and at least 19 others were injured, should have condemned the violence and those responsible for it in the strongest possible terms. He should have praised the civil rights investigation being launched at the behest of his erstwhile ally Attorney General Jeff Sessions and offered his prayers — never mind the thoughts — for the victims, their families, and everyone else involved.
Stark, simple, straightforward, perhaps cliché-ridden, but none the worse for it: It is the kind of things presidents unfortunately have to do all the time. On a scale of "breathing" to "passing universal health-care the same day you announce in immaculate Classical Persian the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula," it was somewhere near the "2 + 2 = 4" level of difficulty.
Being mourner-in-chief isn't a difficult job. Neither is publicly opposing terrorism. If anything, these occasions are an opportunity for presidents to score cheap credibility. No one ever says these speeches are bad even if they are because, well, death is not a good occasion for making aesthetic arguments or trying to needle the other side about extenuating circumstances. There is a reason that ex-girlfriends are generally not asked to help draft eulogies. Imagine if Barack Obama had made a statement two days after Micah Xavier Johnson's ambush murder of five police officers in Dallas condemning the killings while pointing out that many Texas cops are, in fact, mean-spirited racists — or if George W. Bush had pointed out that, well, al Qaeda has got some pretty legitimate beefs with neoliberal democracy. They would have been called "soft on terrorism" — and lots of other names.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Trump doesn't know how to shoot free throws. He would rather lob half-court shots under heavy zone coverage while whining about how the refs are unfair. So what the American people have been treated to over the course of the last five or so days is a risible exercise in mealy-mouthedness from our tough-talking commander in chief. Never mind the fact that it's wrong to pretend there is some kind of moral equivalence between outside agitators, trying to subvert the decision of a duly elected city council with torches, swastikas, and guns, and college kids and old Methodist church ladies who oppose racism. You don't even have to care about what's right to be right here. All you have to be is not an idiot.
Trump's initially shy trigger finger on the "Tweet" button would be excusable, not least by social media skeptics like yours truly, if we weren't talking about a leader of the free world who sometimes feels the need to accuse his opponents of fraud at 1:38 a.m. via a micro-blogging platform. His ill-informed speculations about the mixed motives of the crowd in Charlottesville are hard to square with his blanket assertions about Mexico sending us their rapists. Who does he think showed up at this thing? Paunchy suburban dads fresh from re-enacting the Battle of Fredericksburg clutching their signed copies of Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy? Sympathetic biographers of General Lee? The Daughters of the Confederacy? My grandmother whose favorite movie is Gone With the Wind? The protesters were Nazis and Klansmen (or Klansboys). They do not need the benefit of a doubt, Mr. President.
Various top aides are said to have been "upset" by Trump's reaction to the events in Charlottesville. John F. Kelly was "frustrated." Gary Cohn, the chairman of the National Economic Council, was "disgusted." Even Jared and Ivanka didn't like it. Both living former Republican presidents put out a statement all but explicitly disavowing their successor.
Meanwhile this was great news for Democrats and for the president's opponents in his own party. How many opportunities do Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz get to sound woke? When Willard "47 percent" Romney is defending Antifa against a sitting Republican president, going so far as to place them in a "different moral universe" from the people whose reputations the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is desperately trying to shore up, you know where you are.
Oh, but you know who was thrilled with the president's response? David Duke. Only a few weeks ago the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK and convicted swindler was on the fence about Trump. Glad he can rest easy now.
This week has been the lowest point of Trump's presidency so far. But your humble oceanographer submits that a man willing to dive heedlessly into waters of such wretched brunneous impurity for no discernible reason has not discovered his Mariana Trench yet.
Things are probably going to get worse.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.