During a visit to Washington on Monday, President Donald Trump will again address the deadly violence sparked by a rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, a White House aide tells CNN. It remains an open question whether he will denounce white supremacy by name, which he failed to do in his original comments on Saturday, or whether he will label the killing of a young woman protesting the rallies as domestic terrorism.

Even if Trump says the right thing Monday, the question will linger: Why does Trump resist condemning white supremacy? The most obvious answer is that he’s encouraging the racism of some of his supporters, after a campaign that derived initial energy from his racist birther conspiracy theories and in many ways was framed around the narrative that white identity and white America are under siege. White nationalism is now alive and well in the White House; we are reaping the inevitable consequences.

I’d like to suggest an additional reason for Trump’s reticence that is intertwined with this one: Trump does not recognize that his service as president confers on him any obligations to the public of any kind. This does not supplant Trump’s racism as an explanation. It throws its potential effects going forward into even sharper, more alarming relief.

On Saturday, Trump condemned what he called an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” but did not explicitly blame white supremacy or continuing racism toward African Americans for it. This sparked a ferocious backlash, including from some Republicans, and the White House and Vice President Mike Pence have since put out statements calling out white supremacy. Trump has yet to take this simple step.

Trump’s resistance appears rooted in part in an instinctual sense that so doing would constitute some form of capitulation. In his remarks, Trump repeated the phrase “on many sides” in a pointed tone, as if to signal that he will not be bullied by any objection to his false equivalence or any pressure to single out anti-black racism.

The New York Times reports that a wide range of Trump’s advisers privately urged him to call out the white nationalists directly, but he kept steering the conversation back to a breakdown of “law and order.” We’ve seen this refusal to give into pressure to condemn racism before. Trump dragged his feet before disavowing David Duke’s support. And Joshua Green’s new book on Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon reports that in August 2016, as Hillary Clinton elevated the issue of white nationalism to national prominence with a major speech, the Trump campaign internally decided not to go too far in renouncing it. Bannon told Green: “We polled the race stuff and it didn’t matter.”

The message that Trump surely received – one he surely continues to believe – is that there is no reason for him to capitulate to politically correct demands that he explicitly condemn racism toward any minorities. But this raises a profound problem. It is likely that Trump views this whole affair as being all about him – that is, as all about whether he will surrender to his foes. He seems incapable of grasping that amid such crises, his office carries with it certain very grave responsibilities to the American people.

Why we want presidents to condemn racism

There is a reason we generally want our presidents to speak out against racism against African Americans amid outbreaks of racial strife and violence. They are well positioned to remind the nation of our founding creed, and of our most conspicuous betrayal of it – of the historically unique experience of African Americans in the form of centuries of violent subjugation, domestic terrorism and deeply ingrained racism, which continues today.

We need our presidents to say “that racism is a deeply entrenched feature of American society that must be combated at every level,” Eric Foner, the renowned historian of American racial relations, told me. “Racism is the deepest inequality we face. There are many people who face problems in our society, unfortunately, but racism is the deepest one, and we have to confront and understand it.”

Foner cited previous instances of presidents stepping forward at fraught moments, pointing to John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 speech in which he embraced the civil rights movement, which had been putting immense pressure on our country’s leadership amid the Birmingham protests. “Kennedy, like Trump, had a significant base among white segregationists in the South,” Foner said. “Yet he went on television and said that this is a moral crisis for the nation and we need to face up to it.” Foner pointed out that John McCain, while running for president in 2008, had showed similar leadership when he famously condemned racist attacks on rival Barack Obama.

“The president is supposed to be, and sometimes is, a kind of spokesman for the nation,” Foner continued. “Trump has repudiated that role from the beginning. His inaugural address was completely focused on his voters. It made no effort to appeal to anybody who hadn’t already voted for him.”

As Jeffrey Goldberg points out in The Atlantic, moments such as this outbreak of “radical white terrorism” are precisely when we need our elected officials to speak out, forthrightly and with no equivocation. But the rub here is that Trump clearly recognizes no obligation to the broader public of any kind as a function of the office entrusted to him. This isn’t just racism. It’s also his megalomaniacal inability to envision that his role might require duties above and beyond his desire to deepen his bond with certain supporters (which of course is all about him) or the fact that he doesn’t want to be seen surrendering in some vague sense.

And this could have continuing consequences. The Times reports that white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups are only emboldened by the weekend’s events and predict that their movement is growing — which means we may see more of this going forward. Brian Beutler argues in The New Republic that Trump’s refusal to call them out by name may well reflect an active desire to empower these groups and, more broadly, to realize their vision. At a minimum, Trump is tacitly empowering them to keep it up — with untold costs to the country that could worsen, perhaps substantially.

In this sense, there is a direct line that leads from this abdication to Trump’s serial degradation of the presidency and our institutions on many other fronts: the continuing refusal to release his tax returns and use of the presidency to enrich his family; the nonstop lies about illegal voting in 2016, which undermine faith in our democratic system solely to aggrandize him; the blithe admission that he fired his FBI director because of the Russia probe; the rage at his attorney general for failing to protect him from that investigation; and the constant claims that the Russia story is a hoax, even though it’s about actual sabotage of our democracy, in addition to his role in it. Even if Trump does say the right thing Monday, it will only come after intense pressure to do so — and will be born of an instinct toward self-preservation — because he has zero sense of any obligation to the public, of any kind.

Greg Sargent is a columnist for The Washington Post.


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