“I hate Illinois Nazis.” — Jake Blues, The Blues Brothers (1980)
A tip to every person considering a run for public office: If you get a chance to denounce Nazis — take it.
White supremacists and the KKK, too. In a nation as divided as America in 2017, there are few easy issues. When everything has been politically polarized, from proper grammar (no joke) to Taco Tuesday (really, no joke) it’s nearly impossible to find an issue that polls above 90 percent. Want to know what’s on that very short list?
“I hate Nazis.”
So why didn’t a smart politician like President Trump seize the opportunity?
According to reporting in The New York Times, his advisers urged the president to explicitly call out the KKK crowd on Saturday. Citing a source familiar with the discussion, the Times reported that Trump listened attentively, “but repeatedly steered the conversation to the breakdown of ‘law and order,’ and the responsibility of local officials to stem the violence.”
And so we got the now-infamous “bigotry and violence on many sides” statement on Saturday, which Trump had to correct and amend yesterday afternoon. And again — why? Why not spend two or three paragraphs pounding the rhetorical stuffing out of the alt-right idiots, followed by a sentence or two reminding Americans that all political violence — even when directed at the Loser Luftwaffe — is unacceptable in a democracy?
Instead, Trump pulled a David Duke redux. He re-enacted one of his worst moments from the 2016 campaign when he passed on an opportunity to kick the KKK before eventually circling back a few days later to denounce David Duke.
The Washington Post has an explanation for Trump’s tactics: “Why is Trump reluctant to condemn white supremacy? It’s his racism” is the headline on a piece by the WaPo’s Greg Sargent. Well, what did the Post want Trump to say? Something like this?
“David Duke … a bigot, a racist, a problem. I mean this is not an example of the people you want in your party.”
Donald Trump did say that. In 2000, when he declined to run for president on the Reform Party ticket because he didn’t want to associate with the racial views of Duke or columnist Pat Buchanan.
So maybe Trump has gone through a Klan conversion experience. Maybe he really is a supporter of the anti-Semites who marched through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” But if he is, it’s going to come as quite a surprise to his daughter Yael Kushner (the Hebrew name Ivanka Trump took when she converted to Judaism).
Many Trump-haters boost their “he’s a closet Klanner” argument by pointing out the moderation in his tone when it comes to white supremacists versus his vicious edge when attacking, well, everyone else. Be honest, Trump fans: If Trump talked about Nazis the way he talked about his GOP primary opponents, he would be the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 Man of the Year.
There’s another explanation. What if Trump is telling us, not his opinion of white supremacy, but instead sharing his opinion of his white supporters. What if he’s soft on supremacy because he thinks conservatives want him to be?
There are times when Trump sounds like a bad “Saturday Night Live” parody of a Republican politician, making clueless, ignorant comments that sound like what liberals might imagine conservatives say Remember: Trump is no genuine conservative and has never been one. He’s a New Yorker who spent 70 years in the Manhattan media stream, told again and again that “conservative” was just a polite way of saying “Heil Hitler!”
Conservative intellectuals have been attacking Trump’s “Klan-casual” attitude from day one. But the Bannon nationalists around him haven’t. Perhaps they’ve convinced President Trump to believe the worst about the people who like him best.
Michael Graham writes regularly for the Boston Herald. Follow him on Twitter @IAMMGraham.