On Friday, President Donald Trump reiterated his belief that the white supremacist protesters that chanted a Nazi slogan while carrying torches through Charlottesville, Virginia, two summers ago were simply acting out of a sincere belief that the memory of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee needed to be preserved in the public square in statuary. It was a moment reminiscent of his initial remarks on the violent protests which claimed the life of a young woman, when he characterized both sides as “very fine people.”
“People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said on the White House lawn Friday morning, after being asked if he still believes there were “fine people on both sides” of the largest and deadliest white nationalist pep rally in decades. “Everybody knows that.”
“He was a great general,” said Trump, of Lee, adding, “People were there protesting the taking down of the monuments.”
Trump’s comments come in the wake of former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry into the 2020 presidential race, in which he specifically cited the events in Charlottesville as a motivation to run to unseat Trump.
It’s worth recalling what actually happened in Charlottesville two years ago. Far from being a gathering of history enthusiasts, the rally was expressly convened to be the largest meet-up of white supremacists in modern times, by a group of men who headed organizations like The Daily Stormer and Identity Evropa. The president’s political coalition includes such people, and they have found reason to celebrate his presidency on multiple occasions.
The most well-remembered event on that weekend of clashes between white supremacists and those in the community who turned out to oppose their point of view was the death of Heather Heyer, killed when white nationalist James Fields rammed his car into a counter-protester march. Trump’s decision to downplay the murder and the ideology that motivated it prompted rejoicing among the race-hate set.
White nationalists and soi disant neo-Nazis have had several additional occasions to cheer Trump. Earlier in his term, when Trump’s administration shuttered a federal program that monitored radical right-wing extremist groups in hopes of forestalling the type of white nationalist violence that’s repeatedly been done in Trump’s name since then, neo-Nazi commentators crowed the president was “setting us free.”
The Trump team has also since shuttered a grant program that supported non-governmental organizations working to de-radicalize members of such organizations.
Trump’s continued willingness to muddy the waters when it comes to properly condemning violent right-wing agitators suggests some awareness on the part of the president that he must continue to preserve the fealty of such extremists in order to have continued electoral success. The same might be true for the Republican Party writ large, at least for the foreseeable future.