It took an act of Congress for Trump to clearly condemn white supremacy

On one hand…
On one hand…
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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US president Donald Trump was roundly criticized last month for his failure to condemn the white supremacist rally and the killing of a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia in August by a man who drove through a crowd of counter-protestors. After Trump argued there were bad people and “fine people” on “both sides,” his business council disbanded, and even members of his own party and some in his own cabinet expressed disapproval.

But his statement seems to have brought about one of the few bipartisan measures of Trump’s presidency so far, and marks a significant moment for the government’s approach to white supremacism in the US. While the US Congress has been bitterly divided over everything from healthcare to Trump’s White House nominees, Republicans and Democrats quickly banded together to write and pass a new law to condemn the “violence and domestic terrorist attack” on Aug. 11 that left a counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, dead, as well as two Virginia State police officers who died in a helicopter crash. The Senate introduced the bill on September 6, and less that two weeks later it was on the president’s desk.

On Thursday, September 14, 2017, the president signed into law S.J. Res. 49, which:

condemns the violence and domestic terrorist attack that took place during events between August 11 and August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, recognizing the first responders who lost their lives while monitoring the events, offering deepest condolences to the families and friends of those individuals who were killed and deepest sympathies and support to those individuals who were injured by the violence, expressing support for the Charlottesville community, rejecting White nationalists, White supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups, and urging the President and the President’s Cabinet to use all available resources to address the threats posed by those groups.

Calling an attack by a white man (Heyer’s killer, James Alex Fields, is a 20-year-old from Ohio who had publicly supported Nazism) “domestic terror” is an important turning point in the US. Such attacks by the far-right are rarely labeled terrorism in the media, or by elected officials.

Far-right extremists have carried out more attacks in the US than Islamic terrorists since September 11, 2001, although attacks by Islamic extremists have been more deadly, according to data from the US Government Accountability Office.

It’s notable, however, that Trump didn’t spend any time publicizing the bipartisan success of the bill. The White House put out a brief statement, but the same day he signed it, Trump seemed to reiterate the stance on Charlottesville that turned so many people against him. “You’ve got some very bad people on the other side also,” he said, referring to those protesting against white supremacists.

Then, on Friday morning, Trump promised to take a hard line on immigrants and railed against the sports network ESPN on Twitter. ESPN is “paying a big price” for its “politics and programming” he wrote—an apparent reference to the channel’s refusal to fire African American journalist Jemele Hill. Hill earlier referred to Trump as a “white supremacist” on Twitter, and the White House said this week she should be fired.

In signing the Sept. 14 law, Trump appears to be trying to placate his critics, and show that he condemns the nationalists and white supremacists that support him. But on Twitter and in person, he’s sending a different signal.