After President Trump made brief remarks on Saturday related to the violent white nationalist protest in Virginia, the country saw something that it hadn’t seen in a while: a full-blown stampede of Republican elected officials and pundits rushing to explicitly distance themselves from the president.
It’s a phenomenon that, while rare in the past 18 months, has happened before. The big question now is whether the emotions prompting this rejection will have any staying power.
Trump appeared on Saturday afternoon at his golf club in New Jersey, not long after a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters on the streets of Charlottesville, killing at least one and injuring many more. That incident followed nearly 24 hours of unrest and violence in the college town related to a gathering of white nationalists, avowed Nazis, and myriad other racist and crypto-racist organizations. They were ostensibly on hand to object to the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In videos from the white nationalists’ march and its aftermath, large groups of white protesters can be seen hurling racist and antisemitic epithets and praising the president. Some were recorded making the Nazi salute and shouting “Hail Trump.”
There was violence at the protests, perpetrated by both the racist marchers and by counter-protesters who also showed up in large numbers.
The chaos appeared to be winding down as Trump appeared before the cameras on Saturday. The marchers were claiming that the counter-protesters had sought to deprive them of their constitutional right to free speech.
But in Charlottesville on Saturday, there was only one group on hand supporting a belief system that holds some people to be more worthy of rights than others in the first place, and it wasn’t the counter-protesters. It was the people marching with Nazi flags and racist signs and chanting things like, “Jews won’t replace us.”
When Trump took the podium in New Jersey, he had already used Twitter to issue a statement about that read, “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let's come together as one!”
The tweet was so vague that white supremacist organizer Richard Spencer quickly relayed it to his own followers, suggesting that Trump was actually condemning their opponents. The president’s remarks didn’t go much further toward condemning the racism at the heart of the gathering in Charlottesville, either.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” Trump said, before repeating “on many sides” for emphasis.
What Trump did not do at any point in his remarks was condemn the racists and Nazis who descended on Charlottesville for their abhorrent views. The closest he came was denouncing “bigotry” -- but even that was thin gruel, considering the stock-in-trade of the modern Nazi is complaining of anti-white “bigotry.”
Trump followed up his remarks sometime later with a series of tweets calling for “law and order” and promising assistance to Charlottesville. But when White House staff were asked by reporters to clarify the president’s “many sides” comment, there was no mention of racism or Nazis in the reply.
“The president was condemning hatred, bigotry, and violence from all sources and all sides. There was violence between protesters and counter protesters today,” it said, according to NBC News.
After Trump finished, there was a considerable rush of Republicans to make much stronger statements of their own. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, for instance, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee called out Trump personally.
Others stopped short of hitting Trump for his failure to name white supremacists as a cause of the problem but made it clear that they were personally condemning it, regardless of the president’s comments.
“There is no place in America for this violence and vicious hatred coming from white nationalist, KKK & neo-nazi groups,” wrote Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “These groups are corrupting our country's greatness. America can and must be better. This violence and hate must stop.”
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whose daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is White House Press Secretary, wrote, “‘White supremacy’ crap is worst kind of racism-it's EVIL and perversion of God's truth to ever think our Creator values some above others.”
They were far from alone, but it’s worth remembering what happened the last time there was a stampede of Republican politicians and pundits rushing to line themselves up opposite Donald Trump.
A month before the presidential election last year, when The Washington Post released the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape on which Trump was recorded bragging about being able to sexually assault women with impunity, there was a similar rush by Republicans to express horror and distance themselves from him.
But virtually all of the Republicans expressing high-minded disgust when the tape came out on October 8 wound up backing candidate Trump on Election Day a month later. And that was despite the fact that -- just a reminder -- Trump never really apologized for what he had admitted to doing.
He said that the words he spoke on the tape were “wrong” but he never even expressed regret for the actual behaviors he was describing at the time -- kissing women without their permission and grabbing them by the genitals -- which constitute sexual assault by any reasonable standard.
It will be interesting to see whether the elected Republicans offended at Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn Naziism will continue to press the president to do better. Will they press him to unequivocally say that white supremacy has no legitimate place in the United States? Or will they perhaps tweet a few more times and then move on, hoping the president won’t be too angry with them to sign some of their bills into law.