President Trump has made no bones about the fact that when he is criticized he lashes back. This is not so much a political strategy as a core part of his personality. "If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck!" he wrote in a 2007 book. But when Trump receives a flood of criticism over something he has done or said, something else can happen. He doesn't just strike back or dig in to his original position. Instead, he moves to take an even more extreme position. When he's being attacked from the left and center (and even by some in his own party), he retreats to the warm embrace of his most avid supporters, showing them that he's their guy and always will be.
So it is that the president of the United States is turning himself into a full-blown neo-Confederate.
Let's quickly run through the series of events in the wake of the Charlottesville protests that led us to this extraordinary point. Last Saturday, after confrontations between various shades of white supremacist protesters and those who came to oppose them — as well as the murder of one woman and the injuring of dozens of others in a terrorist attack — Trump said that "many sides" were to blame for the violence. When that statement was widely criticized, Trump's aides prevailed upon him to make a more emphatic statement, this one on Monday, specifically calling out neo-Nazis and the KKK.
Apparently resentful at being forced to act like a human being with some sense of morality, Trump reacted by holding another press conference on Tuesday, in which he criticized liberal counter-protesters, said that many "very fine people" were among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and tossed out some stock arguments about how if we take down statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the next thing you know we'll be tearing down monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
That press conference received even more criticism, including a number of articles reporting that many of his own aides were disgusted and dismayed by his performance. Which of course led to another reaction on his part, in this Twitter tirade Thursday morning:
When he made the comment about statues at his Tuesday press conference, it seemed like he was tossing out an argument he had heard (probably on Fox News) without having given it too much thought. After he said, "You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?", a reporter immediately asked whether statues of Lee should come down, and Trump paused as though he wasn't quite sure what he believed, or he hadn't considered what his position should be. After a moment he said, "I would say that is up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located." It was a way of not taking any particular stance.
But by Thursday morning, he had a clear position. Trump is now arguing that "the history and culture of our great country" is "being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments." Which is exactly what neo-Confederates believe.
Let's get a few things straight. The idea that if we don't have statues to Confederate generals and politicians all over the place then we will have forgotten our history is ludicrous. Our history is full of important figures and events that aren't memorialized in iron and marble on every corner. There are a hundred different ways to understand history that are much more meaningful than a statue. The point of a statue is to get right in everyone's line of sight on a daily basis, to say, "This is who we are and who we honor."
And we can't separate the debate over these statues from the context in which they were erected in the first place. These statues weren't put up right after the Civil War to remember what had just happened. Instead, they were erected in two great waves, as part of a white Southern backlash against efforts to obtain full rights and privileges for African-Americans. The largest number were put up between 1895 and 1915, after Reconstruction ended and coinciding with an extended campaign of terrorism, lynching, and massacres against African-Americans. The second significant wave happened in the 1950s and 1960s, as the white South fought against the civil rights movement (you can find a helpful chart here). They were always about asserting white supremacy.
As for the idea that if we take down statues of Robert E. Lee then we'll have to take down statues of George Washington — an argument that neo-Confederates make when they think they're being clever, and one that the president's personal lawyer John Dowd is apparently fond of — that's uncommonly stupid. There are statues of George Washington because he led the American army in a rebellion against an oppressive dictatorship, in a cause that had freedom at its core, and became the first president of the United States. Robert E. Lee led an army rebelling against the United States, in a cause that had maintaining slavery at its core.
And yes, Washington was a slave owner. That is a moral stain that can never and should never be removed from his legacy. But statues to Washington were put up to celebrate his role in the founding of our nation, not the fact that he owned slaves. Statues to Lee, on the other hand, were put up to celebrate his role in a rebellion meant to preserve slavery. They are monuments to the ideology of white supremacy, nothing less and nothing more.
Perhaps the most repugnant thing in Trump's tweets is his mention of "culture" as a reason why Confederate statues should stay up. This is where he most directly declares his sympathy for the neo-Confederate cause. There are all kinds of things Southerners can celebrate about their culture — food, music, literature — but neo-Confederates choose to say that a war to maintain the enslavement of African-Americans is what "culture" means to them. So too does Donald Trump.
While President Trump has a long history of racist statements and actions, before now there was little evidence he ever thought or cared much about the Confederacy. But at a moment of political crisis, he has decided to run headlong into its arms. Not surprisingly, all manner of white supremacists are celebrating as he further validates their beliefs. No one really thought he would make an effort to unify the country and be the president of all Americans. But this is even more loathsome than we expected.