President Donald Trump on Monday gave the nation what it had been seeking for two days — a blistering condemnation of the white supremacists at the root of the bloody confrontations last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump specifically identified hate groups, calling out the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in general. He said they are “repugnant” to the ideals held by all Americans. He declared that racism is evil and that people who commit violence in its name are criminals and thugs. And he isolated them further by noting that the true character of Americans is to respond to hate with love.
Trump also promised to hold accountable the perpetrators of the violence. He talked about the Justice Department’s preliminary civil rights investigation into the car attack, allegedly by an apparent Nazi sympathizer, that killed a 32-year-old counterprotester; mentioned victim Heather Heyer by name; and conveyed his sympathies to her family and those of the two Virginia state troopers killed in a helicopter crash while monitoring the hate rally.
His words were unequivocal and forceful, and he should be commended for saying them. Trump needed to say them sooner, but it was essential that the nation hear those words coming from its president.
But the context of Trump’s remarks matters, too. They came after two days of intense pressure from outside and even inside the White House that he issue a stronger, more pointed condemnation. They came amid falling poll numbers that show erosion even in his base, as Republicans leaders publicly distance themselves. They followed his inexplicable personal attack Monday on the head of Merck & Co. pharmaceuticals, one of the few black chief executives of a Fortune 500 company, who quit a Trump advisory board over his refusal to directly criticize white supremacists. The president was sinking in quicksand of his own making.
The media didn’t create this controversy. Trump’s dog whistles drew these hate groups to him. Trump fueled the birtherism movement, questioning whether President Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen. He refused to disavow the KKK and claimed he knew nothing about David Duke, the hate group’s former imperial wizard. Trump doesn’t get a pass for any of that.
And all of that matters — his own long history and most recent remarks — because what happened in Charlottesville sadly will not be the last time he will have to address racial hatred as president. He emboldened these hate groups. One neo-Nazi website initially praised Trump for not blasting its followers for the weekend violence; on Monday, it said Trump was forced to change his tone by the “whining Jew media.” One white supremacist leader insisted Trump had not condemned his movement. They and other white nationalist leaders proclaimed victory in Charlottesville, and announced plans for more demonstrations and rallies around the country.
This isn’t going away. The stain of racism has plagued America for hundreds of years. Real leadership is required in this ongoing struggle. The next time, the nation needs Trump to do the right thing right from the start.