To be fair to Trump, some commentators have not reported his remarks in full. Towards the end of his statement, he said that all Americans — regardless of “color, creed, religion or political party” — are Americans, and that they need to put aside their differences and learn to respect and “love” each other.
Trump can be fairly accused of nationalism, but it’s hard to find evidence in his public rhetoric of the kind of biological racism on display in Charlottesville. On the contrary, Trump appears to believe in a color-blind patriotism — the view that all Americans are equal and bound together by loyalty to the flag.
The problem with this view is that it’s totally out of step with reality. American history and society are not color-blind. Black Lives Matter, for all its faults, sees a truth that Trump does not: America operates an unjust racial hierarchy in which people of color are relegated to the bottom. When African-Americans protest, they are expressing their powerlessness, they are punching upwards.
White supremacists, by contrast, enjoy power and authority. They are punching downwards out of irrational hate. By refusing to identify the very particular problem and evil of white racism, Trump thus divorces himself from reality. He also causes pain where a president ought to try to heal.
His defenders do have a case to make. It is wrong to suggest that the Neo-Nazis define Trump’s base: his base is much, much larger and includes people who voted for Barack Obama. It’s wrong to say that the Neo-Nazis are part of the conservative movement. But the fascists would love you to believe that, because it would give them a significance and respectability they don’t have.
But conservatives have got to ask why the far-Right so often identifies with their leaders and why it is that the President’s type of rugged patriotism spreads not unity, as it promises, but disunity, disagreement and outright hate. Trump is plainly not bringing America together in the way he promised.