In his explosive Tuesday press conference, President Donald Trump seized a far more dramatic moment not so much to teach as to fight. He admitted no fault, calibrated no words, and — in the eyes of both Republicans and Democrats — inflamed rather than defused racial tension, Politico reports.
It wasn’t just that Trump defended the pro-Confederate sympathies of a group of demonstrators heavily populated by anti-Semitic white supremacists, or that he seemed to draw equivalence between them and what he called a “very violent” group of “alt-left” counter-protesters who opposed them.
Along the way, he castigated Senator John McCain, who is fighting brain cancer, refused to endorse the job security of his embattled senior aide Stephen Bannon (or “Mr. Bannon,” as Trump called him), snapped at the “dishonest” reporters who questioned him; and turned a question about Charlottesville, a city mourning a 34-year-old resident killed on Saturday, into a plug for the vineyard he owns nearby.
It was a Trump familiar to those who followed his wildly unorthodox campaign, but one rarely on display since his election — unpredictable and politically incorrect to a degree unseen since his visit to Central Intelligence Agency a day after he was sworn in, when he raged at the media over reports about the crowd size at his inauguration. And even by the standards of a politician who has repeatedly shocked his critics, and dazzled admirers with his flouting of convention, Trump’s performance stood out.
“A team of the country’s most eminent behavioral psychologists, cultural historians, statesmen and clergy could have been asked to design the worst leader imaginable for this moment and Trump would have exceeded their imaginations,” said Mark Salter, a former longtime chief of staff and speechwriter to McCain. Earlier, Trump lashed out at McCain for voting against a Republican healthcare bill.
Leaders of the Republican establishment also scrambled to distance themselves from Trump and his comments, his third effort since the violence erupted on Saturday. “We must be clear,” House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted.
“White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
But segments of the pro-Trump right were downright delighted. “Potus Comes Roaring Back With Press Smackdown at Trump Tower,” cheered one Breitbart News headline. “Doubles Down,” declared another.
Such headlines raise the question of whether Trump is consciously scandalizing the political mainstream in an effort to re-energize voters who thrilled to his taboo-busting style during the 2016 campaign. But to Trump’s harshest critics, Tuesday was merely a sign that Trump — who aides said was not supposed to take questions at a press event meant to promote his infrastructure plans — has no self-control or sense of propriety.
“I think this guy is deeply ill. I really do,” former Democratic Vermont Governor Howard Dean said on MSNBC shortly after Trump spoke.
Either way, left in the dust was any sense of tradition or continuity with the way past presidents have handled similar moments — and the subject of race in America. An empathetic, lip-biting Bill Clinton, whose first term included the racial trauma of the O.J. Simpson trial, kicked off a “national dialogue” on race, appointing a panel of esteemed race relations experts.
Speaking at the memorial service for five Dallas police officers murdered by a radicalized black man last July, former president George W. Bush cited scripture, spoke of empathy and urged Americans to reject “the unity of fear” for “the unity of hope, affection and high purpose.”
Obama repeatedly confronted America’s open racial wounds as president. Asked to contrast Obama’s 2009 “beer summit” with Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former White House communications director, was almost at a loss for words.
“It’s hard to compare Obama and Trump or Trump and any other sentient human with an ounce of empathy or self-awareness,” Pfeiffer said.
“Obama made a statement when more facts came out and made it clear that first statement was incorrect, he took responsibility. Trump has proven time and time again that he is incapable of such an approach.”
That was hardly Obama’s only response to racial strife. In July 2015, Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at a funeral for a reverend among the nine black people massacred by a white gunman in a Charleston, S.C. church. And after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in July 2013 on charges that he murdered the black teenager Trayvon Martin, Obama offered words that echo Tuesday’s bipartisan response to Trump.
“Those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature,” Obama said at the time, “as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.”