Two days after responding to the attack in Charlotteville, Virginia that left one dead and numerous people injured by blaming the violence “on many sides,” Donald Trump delivered what might be one of the emptiest, most meaningless statements he has given to date.
In short, prepared remarks, the president said “in the strongest possible terms” that he condemned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence... As I have said many times before, regardless of the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws, we all salute the same great flag and we are all made by the same almighty God... We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence.”
In language reflective of earlier statements made by both Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump also said: “Racism is evil. Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” He promised too that “justice will be delivered” to “anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence.”
Almost immediately after his statement, headlines that “Trump Condemns ‘Evil Racism’” or “Trump Condemns White Supremacists” or “Calls Out Racism” spread across the web. The short statement, only a few minutes long and with no follow-up questions, served its purpose: the White House earned its redemptive headlines and can now claim that the president has condemned racial violence or has “called out” the KKK and neo-Nazis. It can pretend that such condemnation is some kind of moral or political achievement (note that Trump reiterated twice in his short remarks that he has said all of this before, “As I’ve said many times before” and “As I said on Saturday”) and that some kind of presidential duty has been enacted. In short, it can be framed as an empathetic response to racism and subsequent violence—a heroic stance—rather than a point of view that should have come naturally and 48 hours ago.
Such jockeying is “just politics,” I suppose; a reflection of the mounting pressure from his own party that White House reporters tweeted incessantly about during Trump’s statement. Maybe that’s true, but it seems like a narrative as empty as Donald Trump’s speech. A not-too-close examination of Trump’s remarks reveals a president that remains ambivalent about the weekend’s racial violence. He did not refer to the fatal attack in Charlottesville as “domestic terrorism,” a phrase that even Sessions was able to muster up this morning. His language describing the victim, Heather Heyer, was a decidedly un-Trumpian way to describe a dead white woman. He has a very specific, very cultivated language to describe such women, that they are almost always beautiful. There’s “beautiful Kate,” the fictional “young, beautiful girl—16, 15 and others” that are “sliced and diced” by “animals,” and “young, beautiful, innocent” girls murdered by “evil losers.” Heyer was not beautiful in death; she was simply a “young American woman.” Perhaps she was killed by the wrong kind of person.
But if Trump’s statements don’t need a close examination to reveal the emptiness of his appeal, then neither do his actions. As he supposedly condemns “evil racism,” Trump is, according to a report from Fox News, considering pardoning Joe Arpaio. Then, too, the White House remains stocked with members of the “alt-right,” a group that Trump did not name, and whose ideologies hew to white supremacists.
Trump’s statements today were hollow, empty even by the terms of scoring a political win. And yet, they will serve one singular purpose: they will allow those who have distanced themselves from the events in Charlottesville to further absolve themselves with empty condemnations. They will allow, too, the romanticized narrative of national unity born of innate values and respect to continue to endure.