Three years later, we’re still quoting, discussing and debating it. If there is a defining moment of the presidency of Donald Trump, it took place at a press conference on Aug. 15, 2017, when he allegedly called the neo-Nazis who conducted a frightening torchlight parade days earlier in Charlottesville, Va., “very fine people.” According to the narrative about Trump that is believed by most of his critics, that signaled a green light to extremists to attack Jews in their synagogues, as well as African-Americans and Hispanics. It allowed opponents to treat the accusation that he and his administration were racist as a proven fact rather than an allegation to be debated. Indeed, it was the centerpiece of former Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement of his presidential candidacy last year, as well as his naming this week of California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Except Trump didn’t actually say that.
Three years after the Charlottesville march that led to the murder of a counterdemonstrator, the name of the town that would otherwise be known only as the home of the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s “academic village” is now a synonym for American racism. And the president’s comments about the events there are similarly enshrined in the country’s memory as proof of his supposed support for the neo-Nazis.
A look at the full video or the transcript of the press conference where the words “very fine people” were spoken reveals that the belief that Trump considered the Nazis to be morally equivalent to those who protested against their presence in that college town is factually incorrect. He unequivocally condemned the neo-Nazis and white-supremacist marchers. What he tried to do was to draw a distinction between the Nazis and all those who were protesting the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public square. And, after a prolonged back and forth with reporters, he also attacked the left-wing extremists who had also come to Charlottesville looking to confront the extreme right-wingers. It was only in that context that he said there “were very fine people on both sides” of the debate about whether to take down the Lee statue. He also raised the question of whether a country that would take down a statue of Lee would soon be toppling those to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
How did all that get boiled down to a claim that Trump approved Nazis? It stems from a combination of media bias and Trump’s lack of discipline.
What occurred was in part a transparent attempt by elements of the mainstream liberal media, which was already fully committed to supporting the anti-Trump “resistance,” to shoehorn his comments into an existing narrative about his racism. The willingness to take the president’s comments out of context and to mischaracterize them was as brazen as it was successful.
Anyone who took the trouble to watch the whole press conference or read the transcript readily understands that what happened was a conflation of his thoughts about the statue removal issue with a discussion of the Nazis. But since few people bother to do that, and most Americans only read, listen and watch media that affirms their pre-existing political biases, it’s hardly surprising that the half of the country that already hated Trump believe that he literally said that Nazis were fine people. By contrast, Trump supporters, who only follow media that takes his side in our bifurcated political culture, ignored the accusation.
That doesn’t mean that what happened wasn’t also the fault of Trump and the White House staff.
Trump was late to comment on the events in Charlottesville, waiting two days before speaking out about it. A smarter presidential staff would have gotten a condemnation out immediately. By the time he did speak, a hostile White House press corps had a talking point to attack him on it.
It also stems from Trump’s lack of message discipline.
Rather than stick to a few clear talking points, he improvises, and his words flow out impulsively, often filled with inaccuracies and hyperbole intended to confound his media tormentors. That’s why he engaged in a long disjointed debate with reporters that day allowing them to cherry-pick words that, while not indicative of what he meant or even what he said about the Nazis, made for an explosive and embarrassing quote.
Even after that exchange, Trump still could have made it clear that taking “fine people” out of context misrepresented his thoughts. But he considers such clean-ups a concession to his enemies and simply moved on, allowing detractors to run with a story that tied him, however unfairly, to a misleading quote.
Trump routinely engages in the sort of disparaging comments that coarsen public discourse and allow critics to justify their charges of racism. The notion that Trump is pro-Nazi is now so engrained in the culture that he was widely and unfairly blamed by many Jews for encouraging the October 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Congregation*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh and an attack the following spring on Chabad of Poway, Calif., both by lone-gunmen who were avowed white supremacists. I have even met Jews who claim that he never condemned the Pittsburgh attack, despite the fact that he had not only done so but also visited the synagogue to show his concern.
A year ago, coverage of the second anniversary of Charlottesville revolved around his disparagement of members of the far-left “Squad” of congressional Democrats like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), whom he said should “go back” to the countries they came from. While telling Americans citizens to leave the country is inappropriate, his calling out Omar and Tlaib for their extremism and anti-Semitism was not racism.
After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, the Charlottesville debate has taken on new importance. While the death of George Floyd caused Americans to think more about law enforcement and racism, the demonstrations—and the riots that followed them—have made some of Trump’s comments seem prophetic. As he predicted, those interested in toppling statues have moved on to Washington and Jefferson. His comments about unsavory left-wing counterparts to the Nazis also seem more reasonable today after the orchestrated violence in the streets of American cities carried out by the same loose coalition of “antifa” thugs.
Trump is a flawed figure whose character lends itself to those eager to demonize him, even as his fans are thrilled by his willingness to outrage the establishment and refusal to act in a presidential manner.
The debate about what was said about Charlottesville is now bound up in a conflict about American history and racism that has divided the nation far more than it was three years ago. Trump is part of that story, but unfortunately, we’re no longer merely talking about a few Nazis. Rather, we’re engaged in a bitter culture war that is not so much about Trump, but over the false and far more important charge that the United States is an irredeemably racist nation. It will take more than an accurate quote or even an election to heal that festering wound.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.