In a combative, unprecedented, off-the-hook press conference held Tuesday afternoon in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, President Donald Trump alluded plaintively to the “massive, self-inflicted wound on our country,” one he termed “disgraceful.” Following the weekend of horrific violence at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, one that showcased newly emboldened hatred in the U.S. and left one woman, Heather Heyer, dead and 19 injured, one might reasonably assume the president was referring to the scourge of racism. But no. In Trump’s America, this “self-inflicted wound” involved the amount of red-tape required to get a permit to build “infrastructure.”
When Trump finally responded to reporters’ questions about racism and Charlottesville, he did so in a way that won him a thank you from former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, and left no doubt that a white-supremacist sympathizer sits in the White House.
During the presser, Trump actually conflated George Washington with Robert E. Lee. He doubled down on blaming the “alt-left,” i.e., antiracism activists, for violence and hatred equivalent to that of neo-Nazis: “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging…at the alt-right?” Trump asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?” His comment, “You had a group on one side that was bad, you a group on the other side that was very violent,” left it unclear which was which, though he was very clear the “alt-left”, as he termed it, didn’t have an assembly permit. Trump also referred to his white supremacist chief of staff Steve Bannon as “a good man” who is “not a racist” and himself a victim who’s “treated unfairly.”
Racism could be solved with “job creation” and fixing “inner cities,” Trump posited, as if making more money solved all problems. Clearly it hasn’t fixed his bottomless need for approbation, a maw so big he heartlessly boasted that Heyer’s grieving mother thanked him for his remarks on Twitter (Trump admitted he hasn’t yet reached out to Heyer’s family).
He ended the presser boasting about the size of his property in Charlottesville, a city besieged by tragedy: “I own one of the largest wineries in the United States,” the president bragged. Needless to say, it’s not true.
All of it was odious. None of it should come as a surprise. Just as white supremacist marchers boldly showed their faces while brandishing swastikas and Confederate flags in Charlottesville, Trump’s response over the days that followed revealed tacit endorsement of neo-Nazis and their tactics. It revealed a presidency so brazen that dog whistles are redundant. As we’ve seen over the past few days, Trump is now doling out dog biscuits intended to feed and fuel.
Seven months into the Trump presidency, some still naively expect the commander-in-chief to communicate in familiar patterns of public oratory, employing language in eloquent, mutually shared communication. This we saw with the barrage of “what Trump should have said” columnizing on the weekend, as if these were remotely normal times.
Instead, Trump communicates via a sort of semaphore signalling, a verbal and non-verbal system comprising coded tells, oblique references, incoherent digressions and revealing omissions. It’s a theatre of now-normalized doublespeak, requiring little translation. The first glimpse was evident early this year when Japan’s prime minister was quoted by Reuters saying Trump’s team told him not to take the president-elect’s campaign remarks “literally.” When language can’t be taken literally, of course, it’s denuded of meaning, ready to be weaponized to obscure, deflect, incite, confuse, connect, and, as George Orwell warned, to “corrupt thought.”
Trump’s failure to denounce white supremacists, a.k.a. part of his base, specifically by name on Saturday sent as clear a message as his administration’s grievous failure to mention Jews or anti-Semitism in the White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. The president’s comments were generic, far less impassioned than those uttered after Nordstrom dropped his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides,” Trump said. The statement was milquetoast, the moral equivalence false; the deadly violence in Charlottesville was not the product of “many sides,” but one. But “on many sides” serves two tasks: it gives cover to white supremacists and highlights mounting national frictions Trump’s administration would benefit from igniting. A potentially polarizing cultural civil war would nicely distract the public from the Russia probe, and allow the government to enact its “law and order” promise.
Monday brought louder signalling. Two days after a deadly stand-off between white supremacists and counter-protesters, Trump began his day trying to discredit a powerful black man. This is old territory for Trump, whose arrival on the national stage—and once-improbable presidential run—was paved by “birtherism,” the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and was thus an illegitimate president. This obsession foreshadowed Trump’s focus on his German bloodlines, “the winning gene” and innate superiority,” hallmarks of the white supremacy movements.
On Twitter, Trump lashed out at Ken Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck, who would be the first CEO to resign from the President’s Manufacturing Council in an act of “conscience.” Frazier earlier had denounced Trump in a statement: “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental views by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.”
Trump’s fallback was to impugn him professionally, as he had Obama, clearly hoping to win points as a consumer crusader: “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!”
Trump’s delay in specifically naming hate groups—the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists—undermined his words on Monday. After self-aggrandizing talk about jobs, the economy and trade, Trump spent a mere four minutes on an “update on horrific attack and violence.” “Racism is evil,” proclaimed a president whose administration is planning to deploy civil rights funds to investigate if affirmative action on college campuses discriminates against whites and Asians. (Just who Trump sees as racist is another question: the Washington Post‘s recent deep dive into Trump’s tweets found him three times more likely to accuse a black person of being racist than a white person.)
Again, omissions spoke volumes. No mention of domestic terrorism. (On Tuesday, Trump said: “You can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want,” allowing that the driver is “a murderer” and “disgrace to himself, his family and his country.”) Trump made no attempt to disassociate himself from neo-Nazis chanting “Heil Trump” attired in his golf-course uniform of white polo, khakis and MAGA baseball hats. He did name 32-year-old Heyer, but referred to her only as “a young American woman.” Notably absent was the sort of fetishistic detail the president likes to employ when talking about the spectre of young women being viciously killed by immigrants.
State troopers Jay Cullen and Burke Bates, killed in a chopper accident, on the other hand, were said to “exemplify the very best of America.” Trump used the opportunity to promise to spend more on policing: “We will spare no resource in fighting so that every American child can grow up free from violence and fear,” he said.
Some Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, chose to be buoyed by Trump’s hollow statements. (“Well done, Mr. President,” Graham tweeted.) White supremacist leader Richard Spencer, the homophobic, misogynistic organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally, mocked it as “kumbaya nonsense”. Spencer understands Trumpspeak: “only a dumb person would take those lines seriously,” he said.
Trump’s signalling wasn’t over. Lest xenophobes fear he’d abandoned them, Trump floated the promise of a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the ex-Arizona sheriff found guilty two weeks ago of criminal contempt for defying a state judge’s order to stop traffic patrols targeting suspected undocumented immigrants. Anybody schooled in the bizarre semiotics of Trump would also see circular linkage between his first tweet of the day targeting Frazier, that birtherism lie and his last: “Feels good to be home after seven months, but the White House is very special, there is no place like it… and the U.S. is really my home!”
In between, the president turned to Twitter to complain that his delayed repudiation of hate groups hadn’t met with more acclaim by the media, or, as he described them, “truly bad people,” a harsher descriptor than used to describe KKK or neo-Nazis: “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied…truly bad people!”
On Tuesday morning, Trump retweeted, then deleted, a cartoon of a train mowing down a person with a CNN logo placed over their face, under the line: “Nothing can stop the Trump train!!” Three days after a car believed to be driven by a neo-Nazi, Trump supporter killed one and injured more than a dozen counter-protestors, the message was crystal clear: the president of the United States condoned the prospect of a CNN journalist trammelled by the “Trump train.”
By the time Trump stood to defend the “fine people on both sides” on Tuesday afternoon, we couldn’t pretend we hadn’t been warned.