Nazis and neo-Confederates descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and publicly revel in racial hatred. As one would expect from a celebration of fascism, violence attended every moment of the demonstrations, beginning with a tiki-torch recreation of a NSDAP march through the UVA campus on Friday night. White nationalist marchers — howling racial epithets and carrying assault weapons — clashed with counter-protesters in an escalating series of incidents until Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) declared a state of emergency.
On Saturday afternoon, the violence turned deadly as a car allegedly driven by James Alex Fields Jr. plowed through a counter-protest march, killing at least one person and injuring 19 others.
This is the crisis that critics have been fearing ever since Donald Trump took the oath of office. And President Trump's miserable response to the bloodshed and rancor that the far right brought to Virginia this weekend is easily the worst failure of his already irredeemable presidency. Trump failed in this crisis for two interrelated reasons: pathological self-focus and political cowardice.
To rise to a moment like this requires an understanding of the forces at play and the long history of racial violence that the far-right demonstrations in Charlottesville emerged from. Trump, as president, is in the position of having to confront the country's deep legacy of racism and provide reassurance at a time when literal Nazis are causing riots in the streets. But Trump can't do either of these things because he seems to neither know nor care about anything that doesn't directly affect him personally.
In Trump's statement on Charlottesville, the president said nothing specifically about the anti-Semites, Nazis, and other racist trash who fomented the weekend's violence. Instead he vaguely denounced the "egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides." The president said nothing about the person who died while protesting against fascism in an American city, but he did make sure to excuse himself of any responsibility: "It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It's been going on for a long, long time." (Trump later wrote a tweet offering "condolences" to the family of the victim and "best regards" to all the injured.)
After getting those perfunctory remarks out of the way, Trump talked up the economy a bit ("we have record, just absolute record employment") and said "we have so many great things happening in our country," which is why the violence in Charlottesville was "very, very sad."
Those brief, detached remarks made it inescapably clear just how badly the moment had outmatched the man tasked with addressing it. Trump has no intellectual or emotional depth; the event's significance registered with him only in terms of how it related to his political interests.
And that gets to the cowardice on display by the president. President Trump's statement that "many sides" were responsible for the "hatred, bigotry, and violence" in Charlottesville was one of the most craven and disgusting utterances delivered by a sitting president. And there's no mystery as to why Trump granted violent white supremacists the protection of false equivalence: Trump's base is angry white voters, and he's unwilling to antagonize a group of political supporters.
This has been true since the 2016 Republican primaries, which saw Trump indelicately dance around the endorsements of prominent racists like David Duke. White supremacists got the message; they see Trump as an ally and a boon to their cause. The Charlottesville rally itself was part of the "shameless return of white supremacy into America's public spaces" that has coincided with Trump's political rise. Trump has thus far demonstrated no willingness to confront these forces. Instead, he relentlessly plays to the cultural and racial resentments of his overwhelmingly white base.
It's not unfair to say that if the Charlottesville terrorist had been a Muslim, the president would be shoehorning the phrase "radical Islamic extremism" into every tweet and public statement while pushing for specific, anti-Muslim policies in the name of public safety — he's done precisely that after terrorist attacks in other countries, after all.
Now he's faced with a situation in which an American has died in an attack in the middle of a highly publicized neo-Nazi protest. And rather than spare a few words to specifically condemn white supremacist violence, he ducks the issue and insistently argues that lots of other (unspecified) groups are violent and all violence is bad. It's craven and actively detrimental to the interests of the country.
But really, what do we expect from President Trump at this point? Why do we continue laboring under the fanciful assumption that there exists some magical combination of external forces that will cause him to grow into the office he was elected to? Trump is an especially unqualified president on the country's best days. The worst days don't make him better; they bring his failures, cowardice, and dangerous ineptitude into sharper relief.