In America, there are a mere handful of groups that politicians can criticize with relative impunity — members of the Islamic State, Communists, and of course Nazis.
Yesterday, however, after neo-Nazi groups marched in Charlottesville, Va., and a terrorist attack took the life of a young woman and injured 19 others, Donald Trump took the ball to the hoop — and missed an uncontested layup.
Rather than condemning these groups he took an uncharacteristically muted approach — decrying what he called “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” as if those bedecked in Nazi regalia and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans exist on the same moral plain as those protesting such hatred.
The same man who has ruthlessly attacked Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Gold Star mother, the cast of Hamilton, Meryl Streep, and the department store chain Nordstrom chose to hold his tongue when it came to singling out white supremacists.
All of this is hard to square with Trump’s campaign-era statement that he is “the least racist person you ever met.” Even racist people condemn Nazis.
To many observers this is an indication of Trump’s reluctance to upset his political base — namely the racist, xenophobic white voters who helped propel him to the White House. Surely that’s a possibility.
Maybe Trump simply is being stubborn. Like a petulant adolescent, the more people push Trump to do something, the more he gets his back up and remains silent.
But perhaps there is another more basic explanation for Trump’s reticence — he’s a racist.
Certainly, there’s plenty of evidence to back up that notion. After all, he ran for president on a clearly racist political platform that targeted undocumented immigrants — largely Hispanic — and called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, which he has tried to enact as an executive order. As president he has regularly taken to Twitter to condemn terror acts by jihadist groups, while remaining silent in the face of attacks against Muslims in the United States — like the firebombing of a mosque in Minnesota.
This is a candidate who refused to condemn the neo-Nazi leader David Duke — and only later did so half-heartedly. After his campaign tweeted out an attack on Hillary Clinton with anti-Semitic overtones, he defended it. In fact, his closing campaign ad featured several prominent Jewish protagonists and contained a host of anti-Semitic dog whistles.
He surrounds himself with advisors like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, and Jeff Sessions who have documented histories of racist and anti-Semitic views. He regularly attacks Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren by calling her “Pocahontas.” He is a birther who regularly questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States.
In his short-lived campaign for the White House in 2011 he regularly used faux Asian accents to belittle and demonize China and South Korea for allegedly ripping off Americans. Back in 1989 he ran a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for five young African-American men convicted in a brutal attack on a female jogger in Central Park (they were later exonerated). In the 1970s he was sued by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments in his housing developments to African-Americans.
Keep in mind: This is just a small sampling. When one considers Trump’s rather lengthy track record of racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia it begs the question: Why are people so quick to view this as mere political calculation and not the articulation of Trump’s own personal views?
Granted, many pundits and political observers find it difficult to call the president of the United States a racist — even though that word describes plenty of previous US presidents (I’m looking at you, Woodrow Wilson). To call the president a bigot is also to implicitly suggest that the 62 million people who voted for Trump, while perhaps not personally racists, were unbothered by the unambiguous racist agenda of the man they elected president.
Whatever the reason, here’s one thing we can say with certainty: As politicians from both sides of the political aisle condemned the hatred and bigotry on display by a bunch of neo-Nazi thugs in Charlottesville, our president couldn’t find the words to join them.
Whether you want to call that political calculation, stubbornness, or an insight into Trump’s darkened soul is up to you. But where we should all be able to agree is that a man who cannot condemn Nazis and white supremacists is not fit to be president of the United States.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.