Donald Doubling Down: Why President Trump Can’t Admit He Was Wrong in Charlottesville

Twenty-six feet of bronze ignited a national debate that cost the life of one, and turned a nation on its head. That statue, a monument to a man who advocated the dissolution of the union which paid for its nearly 100-year upkeep, helped to bring many of the ugliest and most divisive periods of American history to the forefront of the national zeitgeist this past August. The incredible inequity that many face every day seemed to be personified by the hateful rhetoric that the torch-bearing crowd lit ablaze on the warm yet chilling night, which tested the limits of what our First Amendment protects, and what it doesn’t.

Politicians and pundits of both political parties were quick to condemn the violence on display in Charlottesville, VA. Prominent Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive… There can be no moral ambiguity.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed, “We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred.” Even Steve Bannon, the darling of the alt-right, went on the record to say that he thought it unwise to delve into a semantic battle on white supremacy.

It seemed as though there was finally an issue that both Republicans and Democrats could agree on: neo-Nazism and racial prejudice were abhorrent to American society. That unanimity came to a halt on August 15th, when President Donald J. Trump stood in the lobby of his eponymous New York building, and began the tirade that may have been his most damaging confrontation to date. The President claimed that “both sides” of the conflict in Charlottesville were to blame for the violence, and that there were “some very bad people” who were involved in the counter-protest to the white supremacists.

As events developed further, the President’s refusal to walk his comments back left almost all of the media’s punditry gasping. Conservatives and liberals alike called on the President to recant the false equivalency he tried to assert.

It is worth noting that the callousness and carelessness of the Commander-in-Chief’s commentary does not exist within a Charlottesville-shaped vacuum. Throughout his political career, the President has continuously made claims that relied on little to no fact. In the face of intense pressure and condemnation, Trump usually refuses to walk back his words, as almost any other politician or public figure would unequivocally be forced to do.

Donald Trump is not, however, the first President to double-down or stretch the truth. In fact, before the term “alternative fact” was coined, presidents have been spinning their own versions of reality for decades. Lyndon Johnson, a stubborn and often viscous political practitioner, had his generals tell the American public that victory in Vietnam was both plausible and probable. His successor, Richard Nixon, doubled-down on Watergate, and continuously claimed that there were no White House connections to the scandal. Bill Clinton adamantly asserted that he, “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and George W. Bush falsely claimed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So if the public has endured its fair share of truth-stretchers in the past, why does Donald Trump’s presidency, and his Charlottesville commentary, in particular, seem like such a stark historical schism?

The answer lies within two important truths: the 2016 election has not practically been resolved, and conceptualizations of traditional American norms and symbols are fundamentally shifting.

If President Trump has made one thing clear, it’s that he is not ready to end the election that vaulted him to power. When Donald Trump experiences a political slump, his aides often energize him by sending him to campaign-like rallies in swing states that were crucial to his victory. Furthermore, the “Twitterer-in-Chief” has repeatedly turned to social media to continue his attacks on Hillary Clinton, rehashing a contest that was fraught with unrelenting rigor and vitriol. In many ways, the President is still fighting the Republican primary. By frequently criticizing and calling out members of his own Party, including his Party’s congressional leadership, the President has signaled that his war with the “establishment” has yet to conclude.

If one assumes that the election is not really over, then it follows that Trump’s comments serve to insulate him as they would in a campaign. The problem is that as President, Donald Trump has to support core norms and ideals on behalf of all of the people, not just his constituency of one.

While it is not unusual for a president to appeal to his or her supporters, President Trump made a critical error by thinking that his Charlottesville comments would appeal to his devotees. Self proclaimed neo-Nazis and white supremacists do not make up a sizable portion of Donald Trump’s base, simply because there are not a sizeable amount of them in the country to begin with. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that as far as the KKK is concerned, there are probably only 5,000-8,000 members nationally. This may explain why the president’s rhetoric was so discordant, as no one, not even the people who were on the “Trump Train” from the beginning, could support a neo-Nazi moral equivalency.

It is also true that the American political system is currently poised at a critical juncture of transition. For many decades, the Republican Party has owned and branded the concept of patriotism. But the Presidency of Donald Trump has, for the first time in a long time, brought the ownership of that political symbol into question. Because President Trump challenges so many democratic norms, he has jeopardized the GOP’s monopoly on the concept. As Republicans are reticent to be critical of their leader, they have essentially ceded whatever moral high ground they claim to have had. The fact that retiring or ill Senators like Bob Corker and John McCain are the sole voices speaking out against the administration, reinforces the idea that the Party knows what is happening, but is too afraid to do anything about it. Democrats are uniquely positioned to seize the narrative, and underscore that patriotism isn’t just about waving the flag or saying the pledge; patriotism is also about taking a knee on the field, and marching in protest when our leaders do not adhere to the American principles that define us. America has always struggled with reconciling its violent, hateful, and oppressive past. However we persistently hope that our leaders can bring out, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the better angels of our nature.”

Ultimately the President’s impulsivity, his reluctance to acknowledge defeat or weakness, and his perception that he can get away with nearly anything suggest that more is at work. Even if President Trump truly didn’t want to, it probably would have been easier to just apologize and move on. But he didn’t. He doubled-down, and that, in essence, is Donald Trump. With the paradoxical tendency to have the thinnest skin but the most impenetrable armor, he continues to see himself in the right.

 

[1] Siegel, Josh. “Paul Ryan: ‘We Must Be Clear. White Supremacy Is Repulsive’.” Washington Examiner, Washington Examiner, 15 Aug. 2017, www.washingtonexaminer.com/paul-ryan-we-must-be-clear-white-supremacy-is-repulsive/article/2631642.

[2] Mascaro, Lisa. “Mitch McConnell: ‘There Are No Good Nazis’.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 16 Aug. 2017, www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-senate-leader-mcconnell-there-are-no-1502895707-htmlstory.html.

[3] Rose, Charlie. “Breitbart’s Bannon Declares War on the GOP.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 11 Sept. 2017, www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-breitbart-steve-bannon-declares-war-on-the-gop/.

[4] Nelson, Libby, and Kelly Swanson. “Full Transcript: Donald Trump’s Press Conference Defending the Charlottesville Rally.” Vox, Vox, 15 Aug. 2017, www.vox.com/2017/8/15/16154028/trump-press-conference-transcript-charlottesville.

[5] “Ku Klux Klan.” Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/ku-klux-klan.