On Tuesday, The Washington Post published an in-depth article defending former Vice President Joe Biden, who has accused President Donald Trump of “concocting a phony story” about the white nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017. The Post suggested that protesting the removal of Confederate statues had nothing to do with the rally, and that Trump’s defense of some protesters necessarily involved supporting white nationalists and white supremacists.
“Hours after Joe Biden launched his 2020 campaign by attacking President Trump for his response to a deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the president began to spin a yarn,” Ashley Parker wrote. She noted that after Biden announced his presidential campaign with a video attacking Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, the president responded by emphasizing the pro-statue protesters, whom he distinguished from the white nationalists.
“In fact, the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville — which left one woman dead and 19 injured — was explicitly organized by a group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis as a celebration of white nationalism,” Parker wrote. “The official event was presaged by a nighttime parade in which rallygoers held tiki torches aloft while chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us!’ and ‘Blood and soil,’ a reference to a nationalist slogan used in Nazi Germany.”
Parker quoted Nicole Hemmer, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia, who called it “a misrepresentation of what was happening in Charlottesville to say it was a statue protest that went wrong.”
Indeed, the white nationalists did arrange the rally for that purpose, but the rally came after months of protests about Confederate statues. In fact, the rally centered around a statue of Robert E. Lee, and it is likely some protesters did turn out just to protest against the statue’s removal.
In the very remarks upon which Democrats seized — Trump’s statement that there were “very fine people on both sides” — the president also said, “you’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people – and 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.”
Trump was assuming, and not without reason, that there were protesters who turned out just to support keeping the statue — without any connection to the white nationalists. This assumption was reasonable at the time, and remains reasonable today.
When Trump defended the Charlottesville remarks after Joe Biden’s announcement, the Associated Press zeroed in on Robert E. Lee, running a profile of the Confederate general.
Indeed, Ashley Parker’s Washington Post story concludes with attacks on Lee, as if for good measure. If Trump was not defending the white nationalists, the reasoning goes, he was defending a figure who symbolizes white supremacy.
“When you say you’re against white supremacy but then you praise Robert E. Lee, the general who led us in the war in favor of white supremacy, I think it’s safe to say these are contradictory messages,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Post.
Greenblatt attempted to connect Trump’s remarks to the white supremacist terrorism at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the synagogue in Poway, California. “These aren’t outliers on a scatter plot,” the ADL CEO argued. “These are data points on a trend line.”
Trump’s remarks following Charlottesville may be regrettable, but there is no evidence to suggest they inspired these horrific acts of terror. In fact, the evil man who shot up the Tree of Life synagogue hated Trump, and the Southern Poverty Law Center tried to blame Trump for the shooting anyway. The Poway shooter also hated Trump, considering him a “Zionist, Anti-White, Traitorous C**ksucker.”
Trump is arguably the most pro-Israel president in American history. When his daughter married an Orthodox Jew, she converted to the religion — and Trump took her husband, Jared Kushner, into his confidence. Anti-Semite white nationalists hate the president, even if some white supremacists wrongly claim him as their champion.
Trump’s intent behind the Charlottesville comments — and his defense of them — is clear: he condemned white nationalists and white supremacists while defending pro-statue protesters. That statement may have been ill-timed, since the Charlottesville riots were indeed organized as white nationalist events. However, the rush to link Trump’s ill-delivered comments to Anti-Semitic terrorism is malicious and false.
Trump has consistently defended historic monuments that remind Americans of the past. Robert E. Lee fought for an evil cause — the Southern states fought to expand race-based slavery into the territories for the decades leading up to the Civil War, and seceded when Lincoln (who opposed the expansion of slavery but not slavery itself) was elected president. Many have attempted to resurrect the South as some noble “Lost Cause,” but this does violence to history.
That said, Americans can still support preserving historical statues to Robert E. Lee on many grounds. Lee himself urged reconciliation after the Civil War. He fought for the wrong side, but he was a brilliant tactician who kept the Confederacy in the war far longer than it should have been (the Union had more men, more money, and better technology).
Trump has warned against removing statues for two main reasons: first, it erases history from public consciousness; second, it has no natural endpoint. If Robert E. Lee must be removed because he owned slaves, how long before the first president, George Washington, and the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, must have their images removed from the public?
Charlottesville was the perfect trap for the president. After he had firmly stood for preserving Confederate statues, he saw the white nationalist riots as part of that broader issue, and he was not entirely wrong. The Washington Post‘s Ashley Parker is wrong to overlook the protests and violence against these statues that preceded the riots in Charlottesville. Yes, the white nationalist riots were evil, but Trump defended pro-statue protesters because that was the broader issue leading up to this event.
Biden has accused Trump of rewriting history on this issue, but he and The Washington Post are doing the same thing.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.