Depressingly but predictably, a white supremacist "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly on Saturday. James Alex Fields Jr. is accused of driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters — apparently intentionally — killing a 32-year-old paralegal and activist named Heather Heyer, and injuring more than a dozen others. Unfortunately, this kind of bubbling bigotry sweeping the country will only get worse before it gets better. While President Trump's weak response to the weekend's events represents its own genuinely unique dangers, we also shouldn't forget about some of the more genteel white supremacy that helped put him in the White House in the first place.
Trump's brief and poorly delivered speech following the rally was the latest disaster in a presidency that has been a perpetual blimp crash from the day Trump was inaugurated. Coming off as a cross between a Jim Crow-era Southern governor and a centrist pundit who assumes that both parties are equally responsible for any policy failure, Trump initially refused to call out the white supremacists specifically, and instead gave vague criticisms of the "egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. On many sides. On many sides."
Holding everybody and therefore nobody responsible, Trump effectively apologized for the Neo-Nazis who fomented hatred and deadly violence in Charlottesville. This is a president of the United States who is willing to call out specific individuals, often over the most trivial of grudges, yet when a very real enemy of the nation's foundation rears its ugly head, he offers little more than a shrug.
This was not an oversight; he refused to call out the white supremacist groups and individuals by name for political and ideological reasons. Indeed, as Simon Maloy put it for The Week, "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."
The mobilization of white supremacy is not incidental to Trump's rise, but central to it. Remember, he became a major figure in the Republican Party by aggressively promoting the racist falsehood that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and continued to engage in egregious race-baiting throughout the 2016 campaign. There's a reason former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke declared after the Charlottesville rally that "[t]hat's why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back." The "our" in that sentence is represented by the white nationalist and anti-Semitic groups that staged the hate rally this weekend. Trump's lackluster response to such a rally was just another reminder of the very real particular dangers his naked appeals to white supremacy and xenophobia pose.
Trump's pathetic speech was a bridge too far for some of the Republicans who made a devil's bargain with Trump and have been ignoring his overt racism and corruption in the hope that he could serve as a vehicle to advance their unpopular policy agenda. Multiple prominent Republican senators, including Orrin Hatch (Utah), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Ted Cruz (Texas) did what Trump should have done but didn't: They specifically called out the white supremacist hate groups and condemned their destructive ideology.
This is laudable as far as it goes, but it doesn't let them, or the Republican Party, off the hook. The GOP has nurtured and harbored Trump's explicitly racist appeals. And still quieter, less obvious forms of racism run through the party. After all, it was not Trump who wrote the 2013 opinion gutting the Voting Rights Act, therefore paving the way for various voter identification laws and dubious redistricting. That distinction goes to Chief Justice John Roberts, a man who has long been opposed to expanding voting rights.
And Roberts has a lot of company. As Eric Levitz of New York puts it, "[t]here are plenty of Republican lawmakers who campaign with utmost civility, and then push legislation that objectively advances racial inequity." Congressional Republicans have not acted to repair the Voting Rights Act or to guarantee access to the ballot. Instead, Republicans in state after state have enacted vote-suppression measures targeted at minority voters. As the Republican Party moves increasingly further to the right of the typical voter, the measures have only become more desperate. Trump's fondness for voter suppression doesn't make him an outlier — it makes him a typical Republican in 2017, and that is perhaps the scariest thing of all.
Calling out Trump's white supremacy is necessary, and it's good that some Republicans are finally doing it. But actions speak louder than words, and until Republicans start showing the American people, particularly those who aren't white, that they care about their rights and well-being, too, the GOP's condemnations of white supremacy will ring hollow.