President Trump flunks a moral test
August 14, 2017
DEEP down, it is always about him: what the world thinks of him. The applause that is his due. The glory that enemies are trying to take from him. That, perhaps, is how best to understand the cramped, self-regarding moral code which seems to guide Donald Trump at moments which call for grand, inspiring acts of leadership.
To understand why Mr. Trump could not bring himself to condemn white supremacists who brought fear and murderous violence to the Virginia college town of Charlottesville on Saturday, some Americans sought vast, dramatic explanations. They puzzled over the president’s mealy-mouthed reaction to the sight of Nazi banners waving in their country. They fretted about Mr. Trump’s muted response to what appeared to be a political murder, as a car was driven at speed into a group of anti-racist marchers in Charlottesville, leaving one woman dead and at least 19 injured. And then some of those Americans peered into the moral void left by their president on a terrible day, and wondered if somewhere within that blankness they could make out something very dark and frightening indeed. Does the president of America sympathize with white racists, they wondered? Or at a minimum, does Mr. Trump believe the votes of white racists to be so important that he does not want to alienate them as a voting block?
That is a weighty allegation, for which critics of the president offer mostly circumstantial evidence. On this latest occasion, Mr. Trump was asked by reporters if he condemned the 500 or so white racists who assembled in Virginia this weekend, led by such provocateurs and publicity-seekers as David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and Richard Spencer, a leader of the so-called “alt-right”, to protest the planned removal of a Confederate monument. Mr. Trump, so often a man of trenchant opinions, proved oddly reluctant to pin the blame for the violence on the white nationalists who set out to start a riot and inspire fear, and succeeded.
Instead the president deplored what he called a scene of: “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Mr. Trump, who is usually quick to claim credit for all important events that occur during his presidency, then sought to cast the protests as a historic, non-partisan sort of wickedness, like a bank robbery. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country, it’s not Donald Trump, it’s not Barack Obama,” Mr. Trump said, before calling for the “swift restoration of law and order,” and calling for unity among Americans of all races and creeds.
His feeble response certainly made Mr. Trump sound isolated. Other national leaders of the Republican Party saw the same protests and had no hesitation in assigning blame. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, called the views on display in Charlottesville “repugnant” and “vile bigotry.” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who ran against Mr. Trump for the presidential nomination last year and who has since co-existed with the president uneasily, said it was “very important for the nation” to hear the president describe the events in Charlottesville for what they are: “a terror attack by white supremacists.” On the Republican hard right, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another presidential rival from 2016, said that “all of us” have a duty to speak out against white supremacists spreading hatred, racism and antisemitism, and called on the Department of Justice to probe the car-borne murder as a “grotesque act of domestic terrorism.” A moderate Republican from the swing state of Colorado, Senator Cory Gardner, tweeted a plea to acknowledge that the violence was the work of white supremacists, saying: “Mr. President—we must call evil by its name.”
It is also striking that Mr. Trump is always quick to condemn Islamist terror attacks in Europe, often tweeting that they prove his wisdom in demanding harsh, border-tightening measures to keep America safe. Yet when a mosque was attacked in Minnesota earlier this month, the president was silent.
Lexington does not pretend to know what lies within Mr. Trump’s heart. For his part the president has said that he is “the least racist person that you have ever met.” But here is something eminently knowable. Mr. Trump ignored a question shouted by a reporter at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, about what he had to say to white supremacists who say that they support him. Some of those on the march in Charlottesville carried Trump campaign signs alongside Confederate battle flags and torches. Mr. Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, had earlier said that he and other protesters were “going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back”.
In other words, as Mr. Trump watched the protests in Charlottesville, he knew that they threatened to sully the triumph that he returns to again and again in speeches and at rallies, even as his legislative agenda as president lurches from one setback to another: his unexpected election victory in 2016. Who knows what deep political calculations or personal beliefs seethe in Mr. Trump’s head when he sees avowed racists waving placards with his name on them? It is enough to know something much simpler. Mr. Trump is a man with an all-consuming interest in his image, and how it is perceived.
Consider the peevish tweet that the president sent out on Saturday afternoon complaining that the violence in Charlottesville had distracted attention from a staged photo-call with veterans from the American armed services, and officials from the Veteran’s Administration (VA) which provides old soldiers, sailors and airmen with medical services. Mr. Trump said: “Am in Bedminster for meetings & press conference on V.A. & all that we have done, and are doing, to make it better-but Charlottesville sad!”
There is a parallel with the ongoing probes into whether the Trump campaign in 2016 colluded with Russian spooks attempting to influence the election. It remains a mystery whether Mr. Trump or senior aides worked with a foreign power to attack American democracy. But it is already quite enough that Mr. Trump thinks his victory’s legitimacy is being challenged. That questioning of his success is sufficient to make him furious. The president himself has said his frustration at not being exonerated over Russian meddling made him angry enough to fire the FBI director, James Comey.
Remember that the next time Mr. Trump fails to live up to the office which he holds. When trying to understand him, start by looking for small, shallow explanations. Perhaps there are others, but self-regard is the right place to start. Whatever the subject, for this president, it is always about him.