On Friday, President Donald Trump defended his remarks after the white nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017, one day after former Vice President Joe Biden entered the 2020 race condemning those exact comments.
The “Unite the Right” rally to protect the statue of Robert E. Lee attracted white nationalists who chanted “Jews will not replace us,” sparked counter-protests that turned violent, and ended in the death of a counter protester, Heather Heyer. Trump responded with a characteristic meandering speech, noting that there were “very fine people” on both sides.
Yet the president also clarified: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
Liberals like Biden seized on the regrettable “very fine people” remark, completely ignoring the president’s clear condemnation of neo-Nazis and the white nationalists. Indeed, in his video announcing his candidacy for president, Biden accused Trump of having assigned “a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
Biden framed his campaign as “a battle for the soul of this nation.”
The core values of this nation… our standing in the world… our very democracy…everything that has made America — America –is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for President of the United States. #Joe2020 https://t.co/jzaQbyTEz3
— Joe Biden (Text Join to 30330) (@JoeBiden) April 25, 2019
Trump responded to this attack after a reporter asked him a question about it on Friday.
“I’ve answered that question and if you look at what I said you will see that that question was answered perfectly, and I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general,” Trump said.
“Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals. I’ve spoken to many generals here, right at the White House, and many people thought of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general. People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everyone knows that,” the president added.
President Trump on Charlottesville: "I've answered that question and if you look at what I said you will see that that question was answered perfectly, and I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general." pic.twitter.com/F07pO8V4pJ
— CSPAN (@cspan) April 26, 2019
Naturally, CNN’s Jim Acosta “reported” on Trump’s defense of the “very fine people” comment, with a “fact check” that ignored the key facts.
“Trump defends his ‘very fine people’ comments on Charlottesville: ‘People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.’ Fact check: There were many neo-Nazis and white supremacists,” Acosta tweeted. Trump never claimed there weren’t — in fact, he explicitly condemned them.
Trump defends his “very fine people” comments on Charlottesville: “People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.” Fact check: There were many neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) April 26, 2019
Jamil Smith, a senior writer at Rolling Stone, condemned Robert E. Lee.
“Robert E. Lee was a traitor and a slaver. And as [Adam Serwer] reminded us in 2017, ‘Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one,'” Smith tweeted.
Robert E. Lee was a traitor and a slaver. And as @AdamSerwer reminded us in 2017, “Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one.” https://t.co/mHx16L9IGn
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) April 26, 2019
There is a great deal of truth to this. The myth of the “Lost Cause” defends the Confederacy as noble, attempting to deny the fundamental fact that the expansion of slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War. Many conservatives rush to defend the Confederacy as a rejection of the “big government” of Abraham Lincoln, but that is reading modern struggles into history.
In the decades before the Civil War, the South had enormous power in the federal government. Southern leaders started seeing slavery as a “positive good,” and fought to extend slavery into the territories of the expanding nation — despite the Northwest Ordinance clearly setting the precedent that slavery should not expand into the territories.
The South kept pushing the envelope. At first, slavery was not to extend into the territories. Then under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery could extend into states that entered the union below a certain line. Then southern Democrats demanded new states determine slavery on the basis of “popular sovereignty,” and Kansas and Nebraska were opened to pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, who formed a mini Civil War in Kansas.
Each step along the way, the South demanded expansion for slavery, and the North could not stop it. Yet Abraham Lincoln drew a line. He opposed slavery as an evil, but he did not campaign for abolition — he merely fought against the sham of “popular sovereignty.” His fight to restrain slavery — not even to eradicate it! — so terrified the South that states seceded, many explicitly citing slavery as the reason.
Modern defenders of the Confederacy seem oblivious to this important history. There is no doubt: the Civil War was about slavery, and the Confederacy was on the wrong side. Lincoln even argued that the Confederacy was a rebellion, since the Constitution had no clause enabling secession.
Yet amid all this, Robert E. Lee proved himself an excellent tactician, and kept the Confederacy from losing the war as quickly as it should have. Even those who rightly abhor the Confederacy’s cause have a right admiration for this man. After the war, Lee became a patriot for the newly re-United States of America. He opposed Confederate monuments, for the sake of healing the wounds of the past.
Americans can remember and honor Robert E. Lee without honoring the Confederacy or slavery. Trump is right — many military leaders regard Lee as an impressive general, even though they disagree with the cause Lee fought for.
Trump’s response to Biden’s attack was spot on. While the president arguably should have been stronger in condemning white nationalism and white supremacy, it is irresponsible for liberals to overlook the clear condemnation he did give and act as though Trump were defending racism. The president was not defending racism, but people who would rather not remove statues of Robert E. Lee — and people like Joe Biden know that.
The left desperately wants to brand Trump as racist, using whatever pretext they can. Charlottesville does not fit their narrative, and Trump is fighting back.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.