Before we get into this week’s travesty of everything Americans ought to hold dear, here’s an excerpt from an imaginary but all too plausible press conference for you to chew on.
Q: Mr. President, a man was crucified yesterday near Jerusalem. How should the United States react? A: There were good people on both sides. They should have taken him down sooner—he was getting kind of smelly. But the fake-news media won’t report that. Q: Aren’t we against this kind of thing? A: Did you know I own Gethsemane? It’s a great golf course.
This little playlet is meant to prod you into recognizing that the most fundamental thing about President Donald J. Trump—more than his contempt for facts and more than his truculent ignorance of what democracy means—is that he’s grotesque. He’s grotesque at a level that ought to make anyone who loves this country recoil. Every day he’s in office soils the presidency in ways that would horrify Richard Nixon and turn Ronald Reagan antifa overnight. Among all the other outrages of his impromptu press conference on Tuesday, the true Trumpian touch was that he really did seize the occasion to brag about his Charlottesville winery before 32-year-old Heather Heyer’s body was even in the ground.
Flagrant white supremacists don’t make up a majority of his supporters and never did; many hardcore right-wingers have grandfathers and fathers who died fighting Nazis.
That obviously isn’t why Tuesday’s Trump Tower blatherfest will go down in the history books, though. Until now, no American president has ever made the case in favor of treating Nazis as rambunctious but principled members of the great American polity, saying “the press has treated them absolutely unfairly” and denouncing how “very, very violent” the anti-Nazi counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville were. No other president has ever earned such warm words of gratitude from onetime KKK Grand Wizard and white-supremacy champion David Duke. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” Duke tweeted.
Naturally, Trump pretended he wasn’t actually defending Nazis. Instead, he invented a totally bogus fantasy that they were a fringe group at their own demonstration: “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he explained. Just a bunch of good, solid Americans who care about preserving their Southern heritage, right? Right. That’s why they were happy to march in a crowd carrying Nazi flags, flashing Hitler salutes and chanting “Jews will not replace us” by torchlight.
Except in its new explicitness, none of this should have surprised anybody. We’ve known virtually since the day Trump declared his candidacy in 2015 that Nazis, Klansmen and white supremacists are among his most fervent supporters. “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Richard Spencer proclaimed to a packed room in our nation’s capital just a couple of weeks after Trump’s victory last November, winning a forest of enthusiastic Nazi salutes in reply. Then the new president brought into the White House not only Stephen Bannon, who probably isn’t an outright Nazi only because he couldn’t pass the physical, but Sebastian Gorka, who attended Trump’s inaugural wearing a medal from Hungary’s Nazi-linked Vitezi Rend organization.
Until Charlottesville, however, much of Washington’s political and media establishment was able to stay in denial about the monsters seething around in the White House basement, downplaying their significance and largely refusing to call them by their proper name. (In polite D.C. circles, Nazi pretty much became the new N-word.) Certainly, the GOP’s more respectable poobahs did their best to ignore it, along with the rest of Trump’s grotesquerie. Disgust was inconvenient to their agenda.
This week, that’s begun to change. Among prominent Republican lawmakers, Marco Rubio, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Lindsey Graham and John McCain have all called out Trump directly. But the outraged reactions of their fellow GOP senators, from Orrin Hatch to Ted Cruz, were hardly what you’d call equivocal. With Merck’s Ken Frazier in the lead, so many business leaders quit two White House-affiliated advisory panels that Trump ended up disbanding both after initially calling Frazier and company “grandstanders” and boasting “I have many to replace them.”
More predictably, a trio of House Democrats has introduced a resolution of censure and condemnation against Trump, which Speaker Paul Ryan will undoubtedly do his craven best to quash. But it must make Ryan squirm to know the vote could be a close-run thing if the resolution ever comes to the floor.
Partly because backing Trump actually hasn’t done squat to advance their agenda (and they’re finally catching on), it’s possible that Capitol Hill Republicans are grabbing the opportunity to put some daylight between themselves and him. The revulsion seems sincere and, outside Washington, it’s widespread. Even Facebook, which has never been exactly what you’d call a beacon of moral authority, announced that it shut down eight hate-group pages in Charlottesville’s wake, presumably with more on the chopping block. Abroad, as you may not be stunned to hear, the spectacle of an American president turning Nazi apologist has gotten an aghast reaction—especially in Germany.
The revulsion seems sincere and, outside Washington, it’s widespread.
Trump probably thinks he’s got no choice. The more his base starts to fray, the more frenzied he’ll get about protecting what’s left of it. Flagrant white supremacists don’t make up a majority of his supporters and never did; many hardcore right-wingers have fathers and grandfathers who died fighting Nazis, too. It’s just that Trump knows Team Swastika is the crew most likely to stick with him to the bitter end. He was always their last, worst hope to prevail before 21st-century demographics turn white Americans into just one more shade of confetti, after all.
So now there’s nothing left of him but his obscenity, which has grown too unmistakable to ignore. Back during the 2016 campaign, partly because it was such a hifalutin’, enragingly hoity-toity turn of phrase, we never thought it was especially smart of Hillary Clinton to slag Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables.” But we also never expected that, just under a year later, we’d watch the President of the United States putting all his eggs in it.