One person was killed and at least 19 people were injured on Saturday when a car plowed through a crowd protesting the white nationalist rally “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia. But Donald Trump had little to say—or tweet—about it. In a telling indication of his political loyalties, the US president instead delivered a short and vague statement about the day’s violence.
At a press conference in the wake of the automobile attack and clashes between radical right demonstrators and counter-protestors, Trump declared (full text here): ”We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
He did not mention the fatal car attack, nor did he acknowledge that a life had been lost. He did not say the words “white supremacists” or “white nationalism.” He definitely did not seize the opportunity to condemn the blatantly white supremacist groups that appeared in Charlottesville waving Confederate flags and chanting racist slogans.
Later in the day, Trump tweeted condolences to the woman who was killed and his “best regards” to those injured.
And by emphasizing “many, many sides,” the president treated all of the attendees that day as if they were the same, and made a disingenuous call for unity: ”Above all else, we must remember this truth: No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first. We love our country. We love our god.”
This extraordinarily neutral language spreads blame for division and unrest to all sides. But try as they might, people of color will find it hard to achieve unity with white supremacists shouting slogans like “blood and soil.” Jewish people will likely struggle to connect with someone performing a Nazi salute.
As president of the United States, Trump answers to all citizens. Yet he ignored his responsibility to take a moral stand on the racism and Nazi iconography displayed during Unite the Right, and the consequences of those divisive displays.
After his statement, Trump dismissed reporters asking whether he desired the support of white nationalists. A White House spokesperson later doubled down on the equivocation, saying that the president condemned “violence, hatred and bigotry from all sources and sides.”
Every time Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists, he tacitly endorses them. Politicians and government officials on both sides of the aisle are making this point. Former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton pushed for moral clarity from Trump, as did Republican Colorado senator Cory Gardner, Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio, and Virginia attorney general Mark Herring.
Clinton, Gardner, Rubio, Herring, and others—from the Congressional Black Caucus to the Anne Frank Center—are right to condemn Trump for his inaction. If the head of state cannot name evil where it appears, it’s even more important for citizens to call it out. As the poet William Stafford writes in “A Ritual to Read to Each Another“:
For it is important that awake people be awake,or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.