The current president of the United States has his own little army of men who play by no rules, many armed to the teeth with assault rifles, all who chant racist slurs, usually bearing some implement that can be used as a weapon—a lit torch, a flagpole, a stick, a club, a homemade shield deliberately crafted with sharp edges. And he means to keep them in his service.
Congressional leaders, meanwhile, have demurred when asked if they would hold hearings on the spread of violent white nationalism in the wake of the Charlottesville violence. These Republicans know on which side their bread is buttered—the crusty side labeled “hate.”
In a press conference on Tuesday, President Donald J. Trump partially walked back the blanket condemnation of neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and white nationalist groups he appeared to issue only reluctantly on Monday, pivoting to take up a talking point from the far right. In the right’s narrative, the violence that ensued in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 is as much the fault of anti-racist counter-protesters as it is that of the white supremacist groups that had come to town, bearing arms, ostensibly to protest the planned removal of a huge statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a town park. What they really came to town for, though, was to rumble—to frighten those who oppose the racist polices of the Trump administration into shutting their mouths.
Trump seemed to characterize a Friday-night march of hundreds of young men bearing flaming torches to the University of Virginia campus as a peaceful assembly, failing to mention that they set upon a small cadre of unarmed counter-protesters on the campus lawn carrying a hand-painted banner that read “VA Students Against White Supremacy.” They came chanting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” Surrounding a statue of Thomas Jefferson, they bellowed, “Jews will not replace us.” They wielded torches as weapons, injuring a college dean, and punched students who dared to protest their arrival. (Video of the mayhem is here.)
Many came to Charlottesville on Saturday wearing Donald Trump’s favorite golfing attire, some carrying Confederate and neo-Nazi flags. A white polo shirt, khaki pants, and the signature red “Make America Great Again” cap of the Trump presidential campaign formed a uniform seen all over town during the weekend’s melee that left three people dead—one protester and two police officers.
I witnessed a contingent of these Trump acolytes marching in a group, with members bearing the rebel battle standard as well as what appeared to be the banner of the Texas chapter of Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi group. They were headed toward the park where Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally was to have taken place.
While paying lip service to opposing neo-Nazis and white nationalists at his Tuesday press conference, Trump did so with a wink and a nod to the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who find in him a kindred spirit. Afterward, David Duke, a former KKK leader and unrepentant white supremacist, tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
Note how Duke folds the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement into the antifa protesters, many of whom carried sticks as they protested. They argued the sticks were carried only in self-defense, and given how counter-protesters were physically attacked, a pretty good case could be made for arming oneself in a town given over to militiamen carrying semi-automatic rifles. There’s a healthy debate to be had as to whether arming oneself in obvious ways—a few carried bats—in such circumstances only escalates the potential for violence (I believe it does). Nonetheless, had there been no hate rally planned for Charlottesville, there would have been no counter-protesters there. Trump chose to turn this argument on its head by suggesting that what he called the “alt-left” had no right to be in town.
“You had a lot of people in that [Unite the Right] group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know, I don't know if you know, but they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit,” Trump said.
The president here pretends not to realize that one does not need a permit to protest an event for which another group has obtained a permit for the use of a public park as an event space.
In his press conference, the president sided with the white supremacists who object to the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue—a statue commissioned in 1917, the year Jim Crow segregation laws were first put into effect.
Making his excuses for the white supremacists, Trump said, “You had people in that group that 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.”
That other name is Emancipation Park. You don’t need to wonder why the president failed to utter its name.
He went on to say that if statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson are taken down, will monuments to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington be next? After all, he said, they were both slaveholders. True enough—but neither was a traitor to the United States of America. And American flags were in short supply among the right-wing forces arrayed in Charlottesville on Saturday. They preferred to carry the standards of the Confederacy, or of their own noxious groups.
When a reporter noted that Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, laid the blame for the violence at the feet of the alt-right—the name popularized by Richard Spencer (of “Hail Trump!”) fame for a 2.0 coalition of white supremacists—Trump displayed his belligerence. “When you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me,” he said. “You define it. Go ahead. Define it for me, come on, let's go.”
Trump boasted that the mother of Heather Heyer—the 32-year-old anti-racism protester who was killed when a car driven by a white supremacist plowed, at full speed, into the counter-protest in which she was marching—had tweeted something nice about him. But when asked if he had reached out to her family, he said he hadn’t done so yet, but was planning to.
In the meantime, a KKK leader left a voicemail for Steve Crump, a reporter for WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’m glad that girl died,” said Justin Moore, who bills himself as Grand Dragon of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “They were a bunch of Communists out there protesting against somebody’s freedom of speech, so it doesn’t bother me that they got hurt at all. … I think we’re going to see more stuff like this happening at white nationalist events.” Trump can say as many nice things as he wants about Heather Heyer, whom he called a “fantastic young woman” during his press conference, but Moore and his ilk are part of Trump’s little army.
Today, Heather Heyer’s family will lay her to rest. Her family has asked mourners to wear her favorite color: purple.
LAST NIGHT, VETERAN JOURNALIST Carl Bernstein tweeted that “important Republicans” and top-tier military and intelligence sources were saying in private that Trump is unfit to be president. That was followed by a tweet from CNN’s Jim Acosta that an unnamed Republican leader told him, “I think [Trump’s] ability to effectively govern is dwindling by the hour.”
We are at a perilous hour. It appears that the Republican leadership has lost its faith in Trump, but is paralyzed as to what to do about it. And if Bernstein is correct (and he usually is), the specter of military and intelligence leaders expressing doubts in the president’s ability to perform his duties means that we cannot be sure in whose hands decisions to execute intelligence and military operations actually fall. Will a general take an order from a man he deems unfit to be commander-in-chief? Surely, that general faces an ethical conundrum.
There is no time left to debate whether Trump should remain in office. His cabinet can remove him under the 25th amendment, but they probably won’t. The House of Representatives can draw up articles of impeachment, but they can’t even manage to hold hearings on a weekend of political violence executed by the self-styled white-supremacist army that venerates Trump.
The moment calls for all-out pressure on Congress to begin the process of impeachment. Because we just saw the president defend his brownshirts, and that cannot stand.