Among many appalling moments in Tuesday night’s debate, Donald Trump repeated his Charlottesville “very fine people” technique, once again shying away from condemning white nationalists.
Challenged point-blank to condemn violent and white nationalist groups, Trump instead told them to “stand by” because “somebody’s gotta do something about Antifa and the left.”
This was immediately taken as an endorsement by leaders of the Proud Boys militia, who proclaimed it a green light to “go f— them up.” “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA…well sir! we’re ready.”
They’re already selling the T-shirts.
So everybody gets the message.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, like many Republican politicians, is still pretending he doesn’t: “I think he misspoke, I think he should correct it.” But Scott also had the good sense to add, “If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak.”
How many times does America have to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on this?
Trump used pretty much the same template as his remarks about the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017: He says he is going to denounce white nationalists—and then somehow manages to do the opposite.
Back then, Trump’s technique involved first condemning white nationalists “totally”—and then carving out a giant exception. Trump said he was against white nationalists, except for this one group of “very fine people,” the people from “the night before“—who were white nationalists, the guys with tiki torches screaming about the Jews.
This is a distinctive aspect of Donald Trump’s style of talking and the key to the doublethink he induces in his supporters. He throws out so many contradictory statements that you can always find something he said somewhere that supports whatever interpretation is required to defend him. You can also find another quote to support the opposite interpretation. And you can switch back and forth between these two positions as needed to support the ever-shifting party line.
Yet if you speak a truth and a lie at the same time, you don’t get credit for the truth. You get the blame for debasing the truth. Similarly, if Trump says that he condemns white nationalists, then praises them, that just makes the praise stand out all the more.
Trump returned to the same style of equivocation in Tuesday’s debate. When asked specifically to tell violent right-wing groups and white nationalists to “stand down,” he instead told them to “stand back and stand by.”
In context, Trump’s line is even worse. Let’s do what Trump’s supporters always ask us to do and go to the transcript. What they usually mean by that is that you are supposed to pay attention only to the parts of the transcript they like and ignore everything else. Instead, let’s read the whole thing.
Moderator: You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left-wing extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.
President Trump: Sure, I’m willing to do that.
Moderator: Are you prepared specifically to do it.
President Trump: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing not from the right wing.
Moderator: But what are you saying?
President Trump: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
Moderator: Well, do it, sir.
Vice President Joe Biden: Say it. Do it. Say it.
President Trump: What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead, who do you want me to condemn?
Moderator: White supremacists and right-wing militia.
Vice President Biden: Proud Boys.
President Trump: Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem this is a left-wing.
So first Trump issues a meaninglessly vague assurance that he is “willing to do anything.” When asked to make it specific, he plays dumb, asking somebody else to furnish the target he is meant to disavow. Again, he has been president for nearly four years. It has been more than three years since the neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville. Antifa has been skirmishing with the Proud Boys in Portland for more than a year. Trump has access to FBI briefings on violent political groups in this country, and he certainly reads the press and watches the news. The idea that he cannot furnish on his own a specific target to condemn speaks volumes.
But then Biden furnishes him with the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys were founded as a kind of club or fraternal organization devoted to opposing Political Correctness. They quickly slid into sympathy—at the very least—for white nationalism, and their primary means of opposing what they see as Political Correctness is brawling in the streets. So they definitely fit the moderator’s criterion of a “right-wing militia,” and they are especially relevant to a discussion of Portland, where they have been the right’s mirror image of Antifa.
What did Trump say to the Proud Boys? The phrase “stand down” was still hanging there in the air, from seconds earlier, but he didn’t use that. He used “stand by,” which indicates waiting in a position of readiness. And then he went on immediately to give a purpose to be ready for: to “do something about Antifa and the left.”
Did Trump really mean this? It is not reasonable to claim that he meant anything else.
If Trump had intended to issue a forthright condemnation of violent right-wing groups, if he had prepared to do so, he would have said something very different. He has a small army of speechwriters and political advisors and spent at least some time rehearsing his debate points. And this is not a man who usually has difficulty letting us know when he disapproves of someone. Yet somehow this easily anticipated issue was not important enough to bother with.
We can speculate about the reason for Trump’s weird mental block on this. Trump supporter Rick Santorum—in the most backhanded defense of Trump I’ve ever seen—attributed it to megalomania: Trump doesn’t like to “say something bad about people who support him.” Another possibility is that Trump has had his thinking influenced by his close advisor Stephen Miller, who has a known affinity for white nationalist websites such as VDARE.
Either reason takes us into dangerous territory, because President Trump spent the last five to ten minutes of the debate declaring mail-in ballots to be inherently fraudulent and laying the predicate to reject the results of November’s election. Such a maneuver could set the country up for months of chaos. And he had—only a few minutes before—told right-wing militias to “stand by” to “do something about the left.”
Trump’s unwillingness to condemn racists and right-wing zealots three years ago in Charlottesville has turned into a persistent pattern—and it is now revealed as part of a larger agenda that marks the ambitions of an aspiring tyrant.
Will he get away with it? I doubt it. But after Tuesday’s debate, you would be foolish not to fear that he’s going to try.