The two-day delay between the outbreak of violence at white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and President Donald Trump’s short remarks Monday calling out the “KKK, neo-Nazis, [and] white supremacists” by name was sharply criticized by his critics and allies alike.
The far-right extremists supportive of the “Unite The Right” rally, held Saturday to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, took notice, too.
In delaying an explicit condemnation of hate groups and initially criticizing “many sides” involved in the conflict, white nationalists said, the President provided political cover and allowed counter-protesters to share blame for the violence, which turned deadly when a man who’d espoused white supremacist views drove his car into the crowd, killing one woman and injuring at least 19 others.
“As he pointed out, there was violence and malice on both sides, and to pretend somehow that there was only violence on one side or hostility on one side, that’s just wrong,” Jared Taylor, head of white nationalist publication American Renaissance, told TPM. “Joe Biden said there’s only one side. Well, wait a minute, if the counter-demonstrators would not have showed up, there would have been no violence at all. It takes two to do this.”
In a blog post about the rally, Taylor wrote that, “Of all people, it was Donald Trump who came the closest to getting it right” in his response.
William Johnson, head of the white nationalist American Freedom Party, who bankrolled robocalls for Trump during the campaign, shared a similar interpretation of Trump’s Monday remarks.
“Donald Trump’s most recent condemnation of racism was also good and was appropriate as the head of our entire country,” Johnson wrote TPM in an email. “I note that he condemned all racism INCLUDING that coming from the KKK and neo-nazis. The use of the word ‘including’ indicates that he believes there is a larger, over-arching source of racism besides those groups named.”
Johnson went on to say he believes white people face more racism than non-whites.
“This is because whites have, by and large, been conditioned to suppress racist thoughts,” he wrote. “Saturday’s deadly act in Charlotteville [sic] by the angry white driver with the lead foot proves this fact. Acts of violence by whites are proportionally fewer that by many other groups. His act sets the nationalist movement back considerably.”
“I am pleased with what Donald Trump said,” Johnson added. “The only solution for the festering racism of this country is separation and the creation of a white ethnostate.”
Andrew Anglin, founder of neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, called Trump’s remarks the statement equivalent of saying “meh, whatever.”
“He waited to respond because his first response was accurate,” Anglin wrote in a post, calling Trump’s remarks “half-assed” and prompted by the “whining Jew media.”
“Trump only disavowed us at the point of a Jewish weapon,” he continued. “So I’m not disavowing him.”
Hundreds of avowed white nationalists and neo-Nazis from across the country descended on the small Virginia college town over the weekend armed with metal rods, swastika flags, helmets and shields. Some wore Ku Klux Klan hoods. They were escorted by heavily armed, camouflage-clad militia members.
As they marched through the streets making Nazi salutes and chanting “blood and soil,” bloody scuffles broke out between them and the counter-protesters and anti-fascist demonstrators who turned out to take a stand against the message of “Unite the Right.”
Trump initially sent out a few vague tweets condemning “all this hate” and calling the events in Charlottesville “sad.” After white nationalist James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his car into the crowd, killing anti-racist protester Heather Heyer and severely injuring other marchers, Trump made a brief televised statement condemning the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
White nationalist leaders immediately seized on the vagueness of those comments.
“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us,” Anglin wrote in a Saturday post. “He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.”
“He said he loves us all,” Anglin continued. “Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all.”
Richard Spencer, the head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute who is best known for shouting “Hail victory!” at a gathering held shortly after Trump’s election, also pointed out that the President’s remarks were left wide open to interpretation.
“Did Trump just denounce antifa?” Spencer asked, using shorthand for the anti-fascist movement.
For 48 hours after the attack in Charlottesville, Trump let the statements of other officials speak for him, as he often did during the campaign. His daughter Ivanka, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others issued much more forceful comments explicitly blaming white nationalists for instigating the weekend’s events and labelling the car attack an act of domestic terrorism.
It was only after a non-stop chorus of condemnation rang out on the cable news networks and among Republican senators that Trump finally came out and made his own brief statement Monday afternoon calling racism “evil.”
Asked what he believed accounted for the delay, American Renaissance’s Taylor said he couldn’t “speculate.”
“He just seems to be more basically fair-minded about how it takes two to do this and it was the other side who succeeded in completely shutting down what was intended to be a peaceful rally,” Taylor said. “Why is no one else capable of seeing that?”
This post has been updated.