"Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?" Chris Wallace, the moderator of last night's 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, asked President Donald Trump. "And to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we've seen in Portland? Are you prepared to specifically do that?"
"Sure, I'm prepared to do that," the president answered. "But I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. If you look, I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace."
"Then do it, sir," Wallace insisted, with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also egging Trump on. "Do it. Say it," Biden said.
"You want to call them?" Trump asked. "What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead—who would you like me to condemn?"
"White supremacists," Wallace repeated. "White supremacists and right-wing militia."
Finally, Trump gave his answer: "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by."
Backlash from all corners was immediate and furious. His answer was called "astonishing," "shameful," and "disgusting." Yet, the shock that hit viewers when the president deflected an explicit denunciation of white supremacy—and one of its many insidious manifestations, the militant Proud Boys—is, at this point, more shocking than his actual refusal.
After all, we know by now the kind of president Trump is. I'd like to think that most people are smarter than to be left stupefied when, time and time again, the leader of the most powerful country on the planet proves himself to be the most consistent ally of the Far Right and its operatives. This isn't the first time Trump has declined an opportunity to disavow such racist machinations, and, as the 2020 election season goes on, it certainly won't be the last.
In 2016, for instance, when Trump was little more than just a delusional billionaire presidential candidate, CNN's Jake Tapper asked if he would repudiate the endorsement of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. "Just so you understand, I don't know anything about David Duke, okay?" he demurred. "I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists."
Again, in 2017, after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old counter-protester, dead, Trump wobbled. "What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right,'" he said at a press conference. "Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do."
white supremacists don't denounce white supremacy— isra hirsi (@israhirsi) September 30, 2020
As Trump's soft spot for white supremacists grows ever softer, it feels redundant to even frantically point fingers at it. The initial shock balloons into rage, slips into desolation, then deflates into ennui.
These times are surely deflating, but not shocking in the least. Even if the president is voted out come November, more than 200,000 Americans will still be dead from the poorly managed COVID-19 crisis, city councils will still inject bloated funds into police department budgets, the demands of protesters taking to the streets during an unprecedented mass movement will still be skimmed over, and the system and supporters who enabled Trump's rise will still be here … standing by. If we let it.
So what is to be done? Vote, if you must. Protest, if you can. Organize with your communities, donate to mutual aid funds and GoFundMe accounts, commune with your neighbors, and fight like hell. Then, at least, maybe the next time Trump courts white supremacists on a national stage, we'll be able to do something other than court our own recurring surprise.
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