And so President Trump has stepped in it once again, and guaranteed that, unless something major changes, self-inflicted wounds will become the hallmarks of his presidency.
Of course, I’m talking about his impromptu remarks at yesterday’s press appearance, in which new, explicit denunciations of racist and anti-semitic hate groups were accompanied by descriptions of some of their individual members present in Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people” – along with comments that at least could reasonably be read as establishing a moral equivalence between the marchers and those who came to the region to protest their planned rally.
Among the least defensible:
>The contention that the torchlight marchers last Friday night included “people protesting very quietly the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee”;
>The charge that supporters of removing Confederate memorials are “changing culture” – which closely resembles the specious claim that the memorials were erected to honor the American South’s distinctive “heritage.”
As per the views I expressed on Saturday, I still don’t believe that Mr. Trump is a racist or an anti-semite. I still believe that his behavior mainly reflects a “pathetically mistaken” belief that a big chunk of his largely white, working class base will take offense at overly harsh attacks on bigoted, fringe figures like David Duke and Richard Spencer.
But upon reflection, I’d add that he’s stunningly inarticulate, and terminally – and in many ways childishly – argumentative. And although I’m not concerned that his verbal indiscipline will needlessly spark a war or some other kind of domestic or global crisis, those are worrisome traits in a figure whose every syllable is (understandably) put under a microscope. Nor is much simple common sense visible on the President’s part, or at least not often enough.
After all, how difficult would it have been to draw up sometime over the weekend and deliver on TV a statement along the lines of:
“My fellow Americans [or whatever standard presidential speech introductory wording you like]. I loathe the Charlottesville protesters and everything they represent. The neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and their ilk have deliberately associated themselves with historical atrocities and injustices that are not only appalling. They are uniquely evil in nature. It is indeed infuriating to see them openly displaying their perverse and destructive views in our streets and parks and squares. In fact, I am personally infuriated that they keep invoking my name, and portraying my efforts to reinvigorate the ideal of a practical, healthy nationalism as an endorsement of racism and anti-semitism and xenophobia.
“But we also must remember something crucial about our democratic values – which of course are values that the hate groups’ evil historical idols have tried to destroy. They demand that even loathsome figures and voices enjoy the freedom to exercise their Constitutional speech rights. So in that respect, attempts to disrupt their activities, or the First Amendment freedoms of other unpopular speakers, must be condemned, too.
“Therefore, law-breakers will be prosecuted – whatever their political views and associations.
“But much more important, I hope that the vast majority of Americans angered by the disgraceful Charlottesville marchers and their supporters understand, and take to heart, that the best way to counter, and defeat, the hatred they spew is not by joining them in the gutter and resorting to violence – unless it’s a matter of self-defense. The best way is to expose their sick lies with the power of reason. The best way is to remember our love, compassion, and respect for each other, and take every opportunity to show it. The best way is to strengthen our nation’s unity of spirit. And the best way is to fulfill our sacred duty each and every day to keep our great national experiment in self-government a beacon for all of humanity.”
Now the President is reaping the whirlwind. I have no idea whether this latest uproar will simply blow over (as with the Access Hollywood video episode), or become superseded by another headline news development, or will doom Mr. Trump to a single term, or will erode his political support so drastically that his presidency becomes impossible to continue. What does seem certain is that the prospects of a successful Trump presidency, and especially of promises kept to economically struggling middle class and working class Americans, have taken a body blow, and that something on the order of a dramatic display of executive competence, an equally dramatic display of contrition and/or explanatory eloquence – plus a tidal wave of dumb luck – will be needed for even a partial recovery.