Politics

Analysis

What Trump’s words say about him

President Donald Trump spoke to the press about protests in Charlottesville in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Donald Trump spoke to the press about protests in Charlottesville in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — After President Trump’s defiant and roundly criticized remarks about a violent rally by white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., Americans are confronting profoundly uncomfortable questions.

Was he giving a sign that he subscribes to the ideology of white supremacy? Or was he attempting to enable the movement because it feeds his political base?

At an angry press conference Tuesday, Trump blamed “both sides’’ — white nationalists and their counterprotesters — for the violence that left one protester dead. He called those who were marching to Nazi chants “very fine people.” And he pulled a page from the white supremacist playbook when he referred to the removal of Confederate monuments as a changing of American “history” and “culture.”

Advertisement

Beyond the immediate shock his statements caused, an intensifying chorus of academics, politicians, and a biographer said years of accumulating evidence indicates that the Trump on display Tuesday was indeed the real Donald Trump, someone who is at the very least accepting of ethnic hatred and white bigotry.

Get This Week in Politics in your inbox:
A weekly recap of the top political stories from The Globe, sent right to your email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

They cite everything from his past derogatory statements about Latino and Muslim immigrants to bizarre declarations of his own family’s genetic superiority.

Trump “has a racist point of view of the world. He has demonstrated resentment for every group except white men over the years,” said Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio, who spent long hours with the president, his advisers, and his family in preparation for his 2015 book, “The Truth about Trump.”

Norm Ornstein, political scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said, “The press conference reflects who [Trump] really is.

“From the beginning, Trump has made it clear he is only the president of the people who voted for him,” Ornstein said. “And those who voted for him don’t include many who aren’t white people.”

Advertisement

In a short statement Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The president has condemned these groups over and over.”

Indeed, throughout his campaign, Trump repeatedly denied harboring any resentment toward minority groups.

“I am the least racist person that you have ever met,” Trump told a black church in September 2016. “And you can speak to Don King, who knows me very well. You can speak to so many different people,” he said, referring to the former boxing promoter, who is black and supports Trump.

On Wednesday, Trump’s small cadre of prominent minority supporters offered statements defending him through their Twitter accounts. But even Trump’s most ardent backers had trouble articulating why they believe the president is not racist.

A participant gave a Nazi salute during a march through the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday.
Edu Bayer/The New York Times
A participant gave a Nazi salute during a march through the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday.

When asked by reporters about Trump’s Charlottesville comments, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson said he did not believe the president was racist, but he could not explain further.

Advertisement

“Because I just don’t think so,” Johnson said.

During his career as a developer, Trump settled a lawsuit after the federal government accused him of systematically discriminating against black tenants in his real estate holdings.

In 1989, he took out a full-page advertisement in four New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty in the case of the so-called Central Park Five and refused to apologize after DNA evidence proved the five black and Latino teenagers were not guilty of rape.

He once suggested a season of his NBC show, “The Apprentice,” be set up so white contestants would square off against blacks.

“Whether people like that idea or not, it is somewhat reflective of our very vicious world,” Trump said in 2005, according to an article that appeared on the NBC’s “Today” show’s website.

On his rise to the White House, Trump peddled the lie that then-President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. During the campaign, he took days to denounce the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.

“He rode that racist horse to the White House,” said Carol Anderson, a black studies professor at Emory University. “Enabling white supremacy means, at some point, you’re cool with it.”

White nationalist demonstrators clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.
Steve Helber/Associated Press
White nationalist demonstrators clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.

Tuesday’s press conference was another example of Trump’s willingness to use racially inflammatory language for political gain, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But Sabato said he did not believe Trump harbored white supremacist leanings.

“Trump has exactly one principle: Donald Trump. That’s it,” Sabato said. “So as far as him being racially tolerant or racially intolerant, I don’t know. He just does what’s in his interest as any given moment.”

In Sabato’s calculations, Tuesday’s combative press conference was in Trump’s interest for two reasons: It allows him to further portray himself as a victim of unfair media criticism, and, more importantly, it’s a “wink and nod” to the large voting bloc of racially resentful white voters.

“Nobody is making this distinction,” Sabato said. “Neo-nazis aren’t big enough as a voting group. But whites with racial resentment, you better believe that’s a big bloc.”

Richard Painter, a Republican who was an ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, said he now has been forced to reconsider his assumptions after previously believing Trump was not a racist but merely employed discriminatory rhetoric to win votes.

“He may actually believe some of this. He may be talking so much he’s believing his product,” Painter said. “Someone tells you to sell a product to get ahead, and then you sell it for a year or two, and you start to believe it.”

Former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush issued a joint statement Wednesday saying, ‘‘America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred in all forms.’’
AFP/Getty Images/File 2013
Former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush issued a joint statement Wednesday saying, ‘‘America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred in all forms.’’

On Twitter, Republican political strategist Ana Navarro, a frequent Trump critic, said, “Trump is either a racist or peddling to racism or both.”

D’Antonio, the Trump biographer who chronicled the real estate mogul’s rise into business and politics, contends that the president’s connection to white supremacy is deep.

D’Antonio pointed to Trump’s statements concerning his supposed genetic superiority over the years, including public statements over the years he’s a “gene believer” and that he has “great genes.”

The biographer said Trump, and his son, Donald Trump Jr., personally told him that the family believes that there are gradations of genetically superior and inferior people, a bedrock principle of those who subscribe to white supremacist ideology.

Trump has also cited the exceptional genes of his late uncle, an MIT professor named John G. Trump.

“I had an uncle went to MIT who is a top professor. Dr. John Trump. A genius,” Trump said in an interview with CNN. “It’s in my blood. I’m smart. Great marks. Like really smart.”

But while the political center, and some of the American public, are now becoming increasingly vocal about Trump’s relationship with white nationalists, two groups have long identified this connection: scholars in racial politics — and white supremacists themselves.

Anderson, the professor at Emory, said she had one question for people who, only after Tuesday’s press conference, were considering the idea that Trump harbored racial resentment: “Where have you been?”

“When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them,” Anderson said.

To this point, she found an unlikely ally, avowed white supremacists on online hate forums such as Stormfront and Daily Stormer. While much of the country was shocked at Tuesday’s press conference, the message boards were abuzz with support.

“He always comes through in the end,” read one posting.

“He’s one of us,” read another.

Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.