Remember when President Trump said of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that there were “very fine people” on both sides? Some Trump supporters are now contending that Trump is being misquoted. This came up again last week in Iowa when Joe Biden and a reporter for the conservative news outlet Breitbart News got into a testy exchange over the question.
This isn’t likely to be the last we’ll hear on the subject, so let’s go back to what Trump said in August 2017 and see what he really said and how he said it.
The trouble began on the night of Friday, Aug. 11 when neo-Nazis staged a torchlight parade onto the grounds of the University of Virginia, chanting anti-Semitic slogans and roughing up students who had locked arms around a statue of Thomas Jefferson. The next day — Saturday, Aug. 12 —came the main march, which ended with the death of one counter-protestor and, lest we forget, two state troopers who died in a helicopter crash.
Three days later, on Aug. 15, Trump held a news conference in which he uttered the phrase now being debated. Trump spent a lot of time blaming what he called the “alt-left” for disrupting the march. It is true that there were several different species of counter-protestors who converged on Charlottesville to stand against the so-called “Unite The Right” march. (We dislike using the formal name because it slurs all conservatives.) These counter-protestors ranged from peaceful ones to a small subset of violent ones known as “Antifa,” shorthand for “anti-fascist.” The police were as intimidated by them as they were the neo-Nazis. This is all well-documented in the report that former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy — a Democrat, by the way — produced for the city of Charlottesville.
First came this back-and-forth, which informs what came later:
Reporter: “Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?”
Trump: “Those people — all of those people — excuse me, I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.”
Here’s where the problem begins. In an academic sense, Trump is right that “not all of those people were neo-Nazis” because there was a bewildering taxonomy of far-right groups present. Some have counted as many as 17 different groups present — some actual Nazis, some Klansmen and some from lots of other groups lesser-known to the general public but well-known to those who monitor fringe groups. The neo-Nazis get the attention because we all recognize a swastika but not the more obscure symbols that were on display. However, it’s possible to lump all these fringe groups together under the heading of “white supremacists” or “white nationalists.” Academics might draw some nuanced ideological difference between the “Stormer Book Club” and the “Loyal White Knights” and “Identity Evropa” but for our purposes, they’re all part of the same foul movement.
The key line in what Trump said is “those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee” — as if that excused them. It’s true that Charlottesville became a magnet for all these white supremacists because the city wanted to take down its statue of Lee. The Lee statue, though, was really just an excuse. These weren’t art historians who had come to admire the statuary and express regret that an important piece of art might get removed from public display. These were white supremacists who wanted the all the world to see them marching in force. They couldn’t care less about Robert E. Lee except to use this statue for their despicable cause. This is what Trump seemed not to understand — and that ultimately led to Trump’s infamous quote:
Reporter: “The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest —”
Trump: “Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves — and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group. Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
Here’s where Trump is fundamentally wrong. He seems to think that the rally consisted of some neo-Nazis over here and some others over there who were simply there to protest the plans to move the Lee statue. That is simply not true. This was not some protest organized by history buffs who think that the statue should stay because that’s one way for us to understand the past. This was always an event organized by white nationalists. The history-minded people who genuinely believe we shouldn’t take down Confederate statues because their presence can be informative about an uncomfortable past were never part of this event — and had the good sense to stay far, far, far away. Anyone who showed up to march was knowingly joining a white supremacist rally.
So when Trump says of the rally that “there were very fine people on both sides,” he may think there were some fine people on the pro-statue side in Charlottesville that day, but there weren’t. There were only white supremacists. So, yes, when Trump said there “were very fine people on both sides,” he was talking about white supremacists. Maybe he didn’t think he was — but he did. And he should have known better. For one thing, he’s the president of the United States, which means he has access to more information than anyone else on the planet. For another, the true nature of this rally was not some secret — it was there for all the world to see. For yet another, Trump did not blurt out these words on the day of the event. These came three days after the deadly march. If he had any doubt whatsoever, he had plenty of time to determine the truth. And yet he incorrectly described the event anyway.
Remember that Trump was almost unique among Republicans. Indeed, those Republicans closest to the situation were among the most vocal in their condemnations. On the afternoon of the rally, the Republican leaders of the House of Delegates jointly declared “the rhetoric and actions of racists, white supremacists, and Nazi-ideologues in Charlottesville last night and today are disgusting and vile.” They saw no “very fine people” at the rally. Yet Trump did, whether he meant to or not.