In Our View: Trump Whiffs on Response

President’s first remarks, weak follow-up after Charlottesville a moral failure

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Make no mistake: President Trump’s comments Saturday about violence in Charlottesville, Va., represented an abdication of leadership and morality. The fact that he wallowed in ambiguity for two days before attempting to clarify his remarks failed to embrace the ideals of this nation.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time,” Trump said Saturday in response to a rally by white supremacists.

On many sides. With those three words, Trump drew a false equivalency between Nazis and those who oppose them. With those three words, he further emboldened the alt-right movement that was instrumental in his election, drawing cheers from avowed racists. As the founder of one white supremacist group wrote: “He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. … He loves us all.” As comedian John Oliver observed: “Nazis are a lot like cats. If they like you, it’s probably because you are feeding them.”

This is not an issue that has any gray area; the beliefs espoused by participants in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville must be condemned quickly and forcefully. Yet Trump allowed his specious comments to fester for some 36 hours, drawing rebuke even from numerous Republicans. He found time to criticize, on Twitter, an African-American businessman who resigned from the president’s manufacturing council in protest — but failed to further weigh in on the Charlottesville incident until later Monday.

“Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists,” Trump said in a statement from the White House. Those, ideally, will be the words that linger from a shameful episode that brought this nation’s racial enmity into the spotlight. But Trump’s delay in stating the obvious creates questions about the sincerity of his course correction. When it takes you two days to recognize that white supremacists who gleefully employ Nazi imagery are antithetical to American principles, then you are oblivious to the very meaning of those principles.

Charlottesville has become a flashpoint for racial tension that has been festering under the surface, but it is unique only in the scope of the conflict that occurred. On Sunday, a pro-Trump group called Patriot Prayer — organized by Vancouver’s Joey Gibson — held a rally in Seattle that was met by counterprotesters. Clashes with police ensued, but no serious injuries were reported. Previous rallies in Portland and Vancouver also have resulted in clashes. “I don’t want huge brawls,” Gibson told NBC News. “If you’re having brawls in the street, it looks like a bunch of crazy people fighting.”

Indeed. And Trump was correct Monday in condemning those who cause violence as “criminals and thugs.” While that applies to activists on both sides of the issue, there must be no ambiguity in denouncing those who advocate bigotry. One unofficial poster for the Charlottesville rally mimicked a famous Nazi propaganda poster and declared the event “a pivotal moment for the pro-white movement in America.”

The violence that occurred over the weekend might well prove to be pivotal. But for this nation to live up to its ideals, it is essential to point out that racial hatred will not be tolerated. And that must begin with the president of the United States.