The temptation is to say that a line was crossed on Saturday in America. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
Maybe the most depressing thing about the death and chaos in Charlottesville is just that. A group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists, racists, anti-Semites, Confederate and Nazi flag wavers and others in the alt-right movement converged on a small college town — my own college town, as it happens — and left one counter-protester dead, two assisting policemen killed in a helicopter crash, many wounded and a nation badly shaken.
And the reassuring words from the president of the United States were that violence and bigotry are bad, but that “many sides” are to be blamed. And, he added, what we need to do is study how this could happen, as if the lessons of violent racism in this country still needed to be learned.
As Joe Biden tweeted, in this five-word lesson: “There is only one side.”
The temptation is to say that in refusing to condemn the torch-lit, Klan-rally-without-the-hoods bigotry playing out in Charlottesville, in refusing to say that, for God’s sake, his grandchildren are Jewish and that he rejects anyone who spews this kind of hatred toward his grandchildren, Donald Trump revealed something about himself. But, of course, that’s not true. All Donald Trump revealed was that he was exactly who we thought him to be, the person who can spit out the most vile things about, say, Megyn Kelly, but who couldn’t bring himself to criticize David Duke. Anyone who can’t see that simply, and willfully, refuses to see that.
We knew about his historical ignorance. We knew about his historic lack of empathy. We knew about his unwillingness and/or inability, as Michael Gerson pointed out, to do the most essential job of the president — to “express something of the nation’s soul” in such times. What Trump expressed instead was his pathological need to remind everyone that, despite whatever else was happening, he deserves credit for doing a great job as president. Unemployment’s down, the market is up, a Nazi used ISIS tactics by plowing a car into a crowd, and we’re going to study how this happened.
This is stunning and yet not surprising, which is what we’ve said time and again about Trump. His refusal to condemn the bigots was basically an admission he believes that much of his base is sympathetic to what Cory Gardner insisted that Trump call “domestic terrorism.”
Yes, Cory Gardner. It was Gardner who tempted me. I’ve cited Gardner many times for being all too typical of those Republicans who have enabled Trump, who have sat by silently as Trump defiles his office, who had, in fact, just buckled under by voting for the ill-prepared, ill-conceived repeal-and-maybe-replace bills that would have robbed millions of their health care coverage in a failed attempt to provide Trump with a legislative victory.
But a line must have been crossed for Gardner, who tweeted a reply to Trump’s first vague tweet on Charlottesville, which was not even as strong as his many-sides statement that came much later.
“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” Gardner tweeted. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
For Gardner, this was a bold step. A parade of Republicans — Hatch, Grassley, McCain, Rubio, Cruz and many others, including even Jeff Sessions — followed. And Gardner double-downed by going on CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper Sunday morning to say that Trump needed to “step up,” noting that “This is not the time for vagaries. This isn’t a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines.”
Noting that Ivanka Trump had just called out white nationalists, Gardner said her father must follow. “This is a time to lay blame, to lay blame on bigotry, to lay blame on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred,” Gardner said. “And that needs to be said. Call this white supremacism, this white nationalism, evil, and let the country hear it. Let the world hear it.”
Gardner added: “And if he doesn’t do that, then we can continue to answer the question of why.”
The problem for Gardner, and for the rest of us, is that it’s too late for Trump to lay blame on Nazis. There is no reasonable explanation for his failure to have already done so. This was the dog whistle of all dog whistles.
The question that must be asked and answered is why shouldn’t we say that a line, finally, has been crossed and that it is no longer possible to be aligned with this president. Not only is Trump morally and intellectually unfit for the job, not only does he feed conspiracy theories, chase down innocent immigrants, play chicken with nuclear-armed nations, attempt to quash climate science, but he’s the president who would have us think he can make America great again with a wink and a nod to torches and many-sidesism.
The history is pretty clear. Gardner blasted Trump for the Access Hollywood tape but then joined his team. Lyin’ Ted allowed Trump to connect his father to, of all things, the Kennedy assassination and then joined his team. Lil Marco played handsies with Trump and then joined his team. Paul Ryan called Trump’s attack on the Indiana judge textbook racism, but then joined his team.
Now Trump has many-sided with Nazis. I keep wanting to say a line has been crossed and that this one is, at last, a line too far. But he has crossed so many lines during his Mexicans-are-rapists, heroes-aren’t-captured, disabled-reporters-are-mockable, so-what-if-Putin-kills-people, fire-Jim-Comey, threaten-job-of-special-prosecutor campaign and presidency.
And so, a man slams a car into a crowd in the name of white supremacy. A president condemns the violence in the name of law and order. A nation is shocked and saddened and angered. In other words, another day in Trumpworld. Another day when shock and sadness and anger aren’t enough. Another day when the real unanswered question is how not to give in to despair.