“Why Won’t Trump Denounce White Supremacists?” Steve Hayes asks in a Weekly Standard essay published shortly after the president’s first statement about the Charlottesville ugliness. The question is a loaded one, and it means to suggest, as the essay goes on to confirm, that President Trump is tacitly cultivating the support of white supremacists. The charge is false, malicious, and unpatriotic, and Hayes’s argument for it is ludicrous. The author could easily see this for himself if he merely reviewed his own words with a tiny application of self-criticism.
But apart from its false and fallacious argument the essay also suggests to me an important non-rhetorical question that Hayes ought to be asking: who would benefit from White House denunciations of white supremacists? The answer might be that white supremacists would benefit, to the country’s detriment. If Hayes cares about that, as I suspect he does, he should work his brain around more than the offensive symbolism of white supremacy, and carefully consider its reality as a social phenomenon. White supremacists court disapproval, and they thrive on attention. In this the media, including Steve Hayes, are their cynical or thoughtless enablers.
Hayes’ essay begins, “Donald Trump is an unflinching critic of anything and everything he finds un-American” (emphasis added). This hyperbolic claim is false, as should be clear to Hayes himself from the illustrations he supplies: Brit Hume, Mika Brzezinski, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Chuck Todd, James Comey, Intel leakers, Democrats, Republicans, European leaders: those are national and international political leaders, national political parties, powerful figures in the U.S. intelligence apparatus, and network TV commentators. That’s not anyone, anything, and everything. It’s only people and groups with a lot of power, most of whom have at some point turned it against Trump. Adding drug cartels and currency manipulators, whom Trump has also denounced although they may not have opposed him personally, wouldn’t change the principle of the list. Trump attacks powerful people and groups who use their power harmfully.
White supremacists don’t belong on Hayes’ list, because they have little power. Even their power to give offense beyond local confrontations depends solely upon media attention that they cannot control. Ergo, given whom he does denounce, Trump’s neglect of white supremacists should suggest that he doesn’t consider them powerful, rather than, as Hayes illogically concludes, that he deems them powerful enough supporters to be worth appeasing.
Hayes’ essay claims that the “disgrace” of Trump’s vague statement on August 12 is also multiplied by its membership in a pattern. First Hayes recounts a February 2016 press event in which a reporter, after informing Trump that David Duke had told radio listeners to help Trump’s campaign, asked the candidate about it, and Trump replied, “I didn’t even know he endorsed me. David Duke endorsed me? Alright (sic), I disavow it, okay?”
Hayes next turns to an interview two days later in which, Hayes states, “CNN’s Jake Tapper offered Trump a chance to strengthen his half-hearted disavowal.” (That Boy Scout Tapper, extending the struggling candidate a helping hand!) Hayes quotes Tapper:
“Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote and that of other white supremacists in this election?”
Trump didn’t offer an unequivocal condemnation. He didn’t offer condemnation at all. Instead, he responded with a jumble of half-truths, misdirections and Trumpian tropes meant to avoid any such condemnation (emphasis added).
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke,” Trump said. “I don’t even know anything about what you’re talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I don’t know—did he endorse me or what’s going on? Because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.”
Hayes then points out that Trump’s profession of ignorance was a transparent lie, because (a) he had been asked about Duke just two days before, and (b) in a 2000 interview Trump had brought Duke up himself and called him “a bigot, a racist, a problem.” One would think that the content of Trump’s quoted 2000 statement would complicate the argument for Hayes at least a little, but to Hayes it’s just evidence of Trump’s prevarication, like some run-in with Bill Ayers that candidate Obama neglected to mention. Hayes continues:
Tapper pressed. “I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is, even if you don’t know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you, would you just say, unequivocally, you condemn them and you don’t want their support?”
After some more back and forth, the account concludes:
“Honestly, I don’t know David Duke,” Trump claimed to Tapper. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met him—I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. I don’t know anything about him.”
This exchange wasn’t just a failure to denounce Duke and white supremacist groups; it was a refusal to do so (emphasis in original).
I don’t think that Hayes’ summation (“refusal [to denounce]”) is entirely satisfactory, but to explain why I need first to point out that Hayes nowhere makes any comment about the reporters’ reasons for asking Trump about David Duke. Why ask a presidential candidate about something somebody else said? As part of an answer one must observe that merely by asking Trump about Duke the journalists were fabricating, in words, an association between Trump and Duke, and publicizing it. And any response that Trump might give would supplement that fabrication (as Hayes’ speculations demonstrate). “Trump denounces Duke” is the headline of a story about Donald Trump and David Duke, and it provides a pretext for more “questions” and “analysis” linking Trump to Duke, as well as more opportunity for Duke to grab attention by making more statements. In other words, the questions are innuendoes, fake news stories in embryonic form (and oblique defamation, from the ADL of all people). I would suggest that a truthful alternative characterization of Trump’s answers would be, that he struggled to avoid engaging with the reporters’ loaded questions. Which was his right.
As for refusing to denounce David Duke, I’m not so sure. Duke has been called an untouchable by millions of people already, including Trump. It hasn’t discouraged him from being a racist and inviting more denunciations. “I don’t know anything about David Duke” probably hurts his feelings more, although I wouldn’t expect him to admit it. An even worse denunciation would be CNN’s total silence. We can only wish.
This leads to my question about who is actually harmed or helped by the ongoing inquisition of the president over denunciations. White supremacists are a legitimate concern to the FBI, which should keep a close eye on them. I’m not sure the rest of us need to know more about them than the FBI sees fit to tell us. Men who flaunt swastikas and rebel flags in public obviously don’t crave acceptance. They crave notoriety. When progressive activists, including talking heads, use these racists as props to display their own professed “anti-racism,” they are actually encouraging the racists. I have no reason to believe that a denunciation by the president—with his Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren and Jewish Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs, etc.—would be received by white supremacists as anything but the ultimate badge of badassery. And they’d work even harder to create more opportunities to get themselves denounced even more harshly from the White House podium. Unless that’s what Steve Hayes wants for America, he’d better think more about getting the “anti-racists” to stop feeding the racists, and less about moral posturing at the expense of the president.