American politics is at present dominated by two sorts of commentator. The first are those who will never find anything good to say about Donald Trump. Nothing he says and nothing his administration achieves will ever be praised by them for any reason. Any new development is an excuse to remind the world of the man’s wickedness and incompetence. The second consists of those who (though usually acknowledging him to be a man of flawed character) can’t admit that Trump has done or said anything stupid or culpable without also pointing out that others have done the same or worse.
For one group, Trump can’t do anything right; for the other, he might have done something wrong but so did somebody else and why aren’t we talking about that? The first group exists mainly, though not exclusively, on the left. The second exclusively on the right.
As a conservative magazine, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has limited influence over the first group. We can argue that the Trump administration’s executive orders on deregulation are a salutary change from the Obama era (which they are), or that Neil Gorsuch will make an excellent Supreme Court justice (which he will), but we don’t anticipate persuading anyone of anything in this group.
It’s the second, right-leaning group of commentators we’re worried about. They generally accept that Trump is not a conservative, that his past moral failings are serious, that he has little regard for the truth of his own statements, and that his lack of self-control tends to undermine whatever worthy political goal he might accomplish. But for a variety of reasons these right-leaning commentators feel obligated to defend Trump, or at least refrain from criticizing him for the simple reason that “the left” will never give him a fair shake.
We freely allow that some criticisms of Trump leveled by progressives are shallow and idiotic. But there are times when the other side’s unfairness and dishonesty just aren’t important. There are times when changing the subject has to stop.
The truth is that, with his statements on the Charlottesville protests, the president of the United States disgraced himself and his office.
On Saturday, the president referred to the neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan protests in Charlottesville as an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” repeating the phrase “on many sides.” It was a bizarre bit of reticence from a man known for censuring those he deems worthy of it in the harshest terms. As the vagueness of this condemnation drew sharp criticism, the president issued a more direct statement on Monday. “Racism is evil,” Trump said, “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK., neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Well, fine. Much too late, but fine. Then on Tuesday, rather than allow his critics to say whatever they would say about his initial procrastination, he defended himself by insisting there were two sides to the violence, both more or less culpable. Why the bland statement on Saturday, then? “I didn’t know all of the facts,” and “I wanted to make a statement with knowledge.” And what were those facts? “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” Again: “You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group.”
There were indeed a small number of leftist or “antifa” thugs at the Charlottesville event, but that is beside the point. The Charlottesville protest was planned and staged by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. Were it not for these people, there would have been no protests, no offensive displays of racial bigotry, and no violence or death. That the president couldn’t or wouldn’t simply condemn the event’s instigators in direct terms—that he preferred to justify his indecision and so give the impression that he has some sympathy for white supremacists and neo-Nazis—is a scandal for which there is no excuse and no mitigating factor.
Trump went on to draw an imaginary distinction between good and bad protesters on the white supremacist side—“you had some very fine people but you also had troublemakers”—and to suggest that the “very fine people” were “protesting very quietly the taking down [of] the statue of Robert E. Lee.” But as he must have known by this point, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis came from all over the country to stage a rally of hate; the statue of Marse Robert was a secondary concern.
So a sitting U.S. president couldn’t condemn neo-Nazi agitators until prodded into it, and even then couldn’t do it without circling back to claim falsely that some of the agitators were “very fine people” who wanted only to protest “very quietly.” There may be other points to make about this embarrassing episode, but they are secondary and simply cannot be made with any moral force until you acknowledge the primary one: Irrespective of anything else, Donald Trump’s behavior since Saturday has been a disgrace.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard