White supremacists including a former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard and the leader of the so-called alt-right movement have praised US President Donald Trump’s reiteration on Tuesday that “both sides” were responsible for the deadly violence that broke out over the weekend at a far-right rally in Charlottesville Virginia.
The president has appeared to waffle on condemnation of the “Unite the Right” rally which drew white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, various hate groups, militia and — on the other side — a host of counter-protesters including antifa and Black Lives Matter activists to the quiet university town on Friday and Saturday. The protest Saturday took a deadly turn when a neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
After the car-ramming, widely condemned as a terror act, Trump slammed the violence “on many sides,” drawing criticism across the board. Amid intense pressure, he followed that comment up on Monday with a direct condemnation of white supremacy and white nationalism, but a day later, reiterated that “both sides” were to blame, saying that “there are two sides to every story.”
In a tense press conference Tuesday at Trump Tower, Trump said: “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?” he asked.” Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.”
“They came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible, and it was a horrible thing to watch. I think there’s blame on both sides.”
These remarks were met with praise by former KKK leader and Trump supporter David Duke who tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
— David Duke (@DrDavidDuke) August 15, 2017
Richard Spencer, the leader of the so-called alt-right, a movement which mixes white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigration populism said Trump’s statement Tuesday was “fair and down to earth.”
On Monday, Spencer, told the Times of Israel that he found comfort in Trump’s original blaming “many sides” for the melee. “I think in his gut he knows that we are not the ones aggressing,” he said.
Other prominent Trump supporters picked up the president’s “alt-left” comments Tuesday and called to label this alleged entity a terror organization.
Jack Posobiec, a conservative Trump supporter who used social media to draw attention to “pizzagate,” an unfounded conspiracy theory that claims Democrats harbor child sex slaves at a pizza restaurant, wrote on Twitter: “Time to declare the #AltLeft aka #Antifa a domestic terrorist organization!”
Mike Cernovich, another well-known Trump supporter and defender, who has distanced himself from Duke and Spencer, calling them “losers,” also went on a tweetstorm against the so-called “alt-left.”
In his remarks Tuesday, Trump acknowledged there were “some very bad people” looking for trouble in the group protesting plans to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville — the alleged real issue behind the rally. “But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” he said.
Trump, who has quickly deemed other deadly incidents in the US and around the world acts of terrorism, also waffled when asked whether the car death was a terrorist attack.
“There is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism?” Trump said. “And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer and what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.”
White House officials indicated they were caught off guard by Trump’s remarks. He had signed off on a plan to not answer questions from journalists during the event, according to a White House official not authorized to speak publicly about a private discussion. Once behind the lectern and facing the cameras, he overruled the decision.
The blowback was swift, including from fellow Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Trump should not allow white supremacists “to share only part of the blame.” House Speaker Paul Ryan declared in a tweet that “white supremacy is repulsive” and there should be “no moral ambiguity,” though he did not specifically address the president.
We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) August 15, 2017
Democrats too were aghast at Trump’s comments. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said on Twitter that the Charlottesville violence “was fueled by one side: white supremacists spreading racism, intolerance & intimidation. Those are the facts.”
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said on Twitter that he no longer views Trump as his president.
“As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment,” Schatz said. “This is not my president.”
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that “by saying he is not taking sides, Donald Trump clearly is. When David Duke and white supremacists cheer, you’re doing it very very wrong.”
At the press conference, Trump also sided with those seeking to maintain the monument to Lee, equating him with some of the nation’s founders who also owned slaves. Confederate monuments have become rallying points for supporters of both preserving and toppling them.
“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down.” I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself where does it stop?”
He continued: “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
The president’s comments mirrored rhetoric from the far-right fringe. A post Monday by the publisher of The Daily Stormer, a notorious neo-Nazi website, predicted that protesters are going to demand that the Washington Monument be torn down.
White supremacists and neo-Nazis had been parsing Trump’s words since Saturday, first praising his Saturday remarks, then denouncing his statement Monday when he called white nationalists “criminals and thugs,” then again expressing approval when Trump went back to his initial response and spread out the blame.
On Monday, Duke had posted a video mildly criticizing Trump’s prepared statement, saying “President Trump, please, for God’s sakes, don’t feel like you’ve got to say these things. It’s not going to do you any good.”
He told reporters Monday that Trump’s prepared statement “sounds like we might want to all bring out an acoustic guitar and sing “Kum ba yah.” It’s just vapid nonsense.”
Andrew Anglin, the publisher of The Daily Stormer, had praised Trump’s initial reaction to the violence Saturday as “no condemnation at all … really really good. God bless him.”
Anglin then dismissed Trump’s Monday statement as “childish nonsense,” and on Tuesday posted an article titled “Trump Defends Charlottesville Nazis Against Jew Media Lies, Condemns Antifa Terrorists.”