“Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I’m not finished, Fake News,” President Donald Trump said at a press conference, on Tuesday. He was using fake news as an epithet, directed at a reporter who had asked about Senator John McCain’s admonition about the wider influence of “alt-right” forces, which McCain had connected to the “Unite the Right” rally that, with its white-nationalist and neo-Nazi displays, had set off a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump began by asking if the reporter was talking about the same Senator McCain who had voted against his side on Obamacare, and then continued by asking, “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this: What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.” This was a repeat of the first comment he had made, on Saturday, in reaction toCharlottesville, placing undifferentiated blame on “many sides,” never mind the swastikas. He had revised that, on Monday, with a grudgingly delivered statement of what ought to have been obvious: that white supremacy and Nazism are bad ideologies. Now, in a couple of lines, he had tossed that aside, like an ill-fitting suit. But, as he said, he wasn’t finished. Trump kept talking, in louder, uglier terms.
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say that right now.” The bad group was the white nationalists; the “very violent” group was those who had come to object. In case anyone missed his point, he continued, “You had a group on the other side that came charging in—without a permit—and they were very, very violent.” Trump wasn’t putting the two sides on the same level; he was saying that the counter-protesters were worse.
His outrage at the counter-protesters’ lack of a permit stood out all the more, given that he had spent the beginning of the briefing, which was meant to be about infrastructure and was held in the lobby of Trump Tower, complaining about how permits slowed down him and other builders. He promised to do away with as many as he could. Not that he had ever been held back; he knew how to get the permits he needed. That was one of the instances in the press conference when his native narcissism caused him to ramble; another was when he began talking about how he’d heard that “the young woman”—Heather Heyer, age thirty-two—who was among the counter-protesters and was killed when someone drove a car into their ranks, was a fine person, and that the person charged with killing her had done something “horrible,” but he ended up just going on about how her mother had said “the nicest things” about him, Trump. The media, he said, didn’t appreciate his niceness. (Later, Trump acknowledged that he had not yet reached out to Heyer’s family.)
As this story has played out, what has been striking is how put upon the President has seemed to feel when asked to condemn neo-Nazis. At the press conference, he kept insisting that this was a matter of being responsible—all the facts weren’t in yet. All the facts still aren’t in, but the swastikas and the Confederate flags were out from the first moment. The only way Trump wouldn’t have seen them is if he didn’t want to or didn’t care, or perhaps he viewed them with political opportunism, emblems of a base to be catered to. All those explanations—that he is indifferent; that he is calculating—remain on the table. The press conference added another possibility: that his judgment is, and perhaps always will be, consumed by his own sense of resentment. When he realized that his statement on Monday had been found wanting, he tweeted, “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the News Media will never be satisfied . . . truly bad people!”
On Tuesday, that media wanted to know if Trump was, as one reporter put it, saying that the alt-left was “the same” as neo-Nazis. Trump erupted again. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups,” he said. “But not all of those people were neo-Nazis. Believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists. By any stretch.” He continued, “Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.” He said that if the press were honest—“which in many cases you’re not”—they would see it his way. And, he added, with a note of dismay, “This week it’s Robert E. Lee, and I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? Ask yourself, where does it stop?”
One might note that Robert E. Lee took up arms against the United States government, the one that George Washington put his life on the line to build. It is true that our history is full of figures who are flawed, but endure. Lee, though, is not a symbol of our values whose life does not match the ideals he is purported to embody; he is a symbol of the betrayal of those ideals. He is our worse self. And if there is not a constant conversation challenging our idols—an effort to look for our better angels, to borrow Lincoln’s phrase—if statues never come down, or new ones stop going up, then we have, in some way, stopped trying to be a more perfect Union. The organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville had not gathered out of some architectural-preservationist urge: they were there for ideological reasons.
Trump acknowledged, again, that some of those people were bad, but he also said, again, “You also had people that were very fine people—on both sides . . . you had people in that group who were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.” Trump didn’t pause to ask why the statue of Robert E. Lee would be so very, very important, nor did he mention the other name: Emancipation Park. Instead, he had reduced a moral crossroads for the country to a question of naming rights. Standing in front of reporters, Trump came across as an angry man sheltered by a building bearing his own name in big, gold letters. But for how long? Tenants in some buildings have already asked to have the “Trump” taken off. Where would it stop? Would there, perhaps, never even be a statue of Donald J. Trump?