Donald Trump has been accused of drawing a false equivalence between racists and anti-racists in his inflammatory press conference in Trump Tower on Tuesday. But if you listen closely to Trump’s remarks about the weekend clash in Charlottesville, they are actually much worse. The president goes out of his way to celebrate those who rallied under Nazi and white nationalists banners to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and to denounce the counter-protestors.
“There were people in that rally—and I looked the night before,” Trump said, referring to Friday. “If you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people: neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest—because you know, I don’t know if you know, they had a permit.” By contrast, Trump scorned the counter-protesters, whom he called the “alt-left,” saying they “came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”
By Trump’s account, on the one side you have a group of legal, peaceful protesters and on the other side violent, disruptive counter-protesters. This depiction is at odds with the facts. As John Podhoretz noted in The New York Post, there’s no reason to think the alt-right had “fine people” in it. On that supposedly peaceful Friday night, they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” Speakers at the event included:
Mike Enoch, who hosts a podcast called “The Daily Shoah.” And Augustus Invictus, an alt-right figure who once said, “I have prophesied for years that I was born for a Great War; that if I did not witness the coming of the Second American Civil War I would begin it myself.” And Christopher Cantwell, who calls himself a “fascist,” along with Johnny Monoxide, who just labels himself “fashy.” And Michael Hill, an ex-professor who said, in 2015, “Never underestimate the perfidy of the organized Jew.” And Matt Heimbach, who says only 27,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Trump’s defense of the “Unite the Right” demonstrators is not just abhorrent, but politically foolish. After all, there are few groups more universally reviled than neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, both of whom were out in full force in Charlottesville. By take their side, Trump made himself even more unpopular with the public and worsened his already shaky relationship with the Republican Party and even his own staff, which was reportedly shocked by his performance.
Yet, however counterproductive it might seem, Trump’s full-throttle defense of the rally fits in with his larger approach to politics, which is all about keeping his die-hard followers happy. This tactic might seem odd for a president, who is expected to unite the country at times of crisis, but it makes sense when you consider that Trump is a product of the world of entertainment—reality shows and wrestling matches in particular—where satisfying devoted fans is a business imperative.
In the field of Japanese comic book production, there’s a term of art called “fan service”: the introduction of material, usually gratuitous sexual imagery, that serves no narrative purpose but to please the hardcore devotees. Trump is the fan service president: He’s all about keeping his cheering section happy, even at the risk of alienating everyone else. Unlike almost every other president, Trump doesn’t even pretend to serve the wider public. An outsider politician who upended the establishment, he remains in campaign mode, insulting not just the Democrats and the mainstream press but members of his own party. Trump has carved out for himself a uniquely agonistic and tribalistic persona. He’s polarizing, and proud of it.
The presidency is a hybrid position, having both democratic and monarchical features. To win the presidency, you first need to win the support of a major political party, which means having a partisan identity. But once in power, the commander in chief is supposed to preside over the whole nation, not just those who voted for him. This creates a delicate balancing act: trying to advance an agenda on the one hand, while also assuring those outside his party that he takes their concerns seriously. Democrats were often frustrated by what they saw as President Barack Obama’s overeagerness to placate Republicans. But in truth, Obama was working in the traditional mode of presidents, especially Democrats, who tend to put a greater emphasis on healing national wounds. (It’s also worth noting that he left office with the approval of six in ten Americans.)
But Trump has decided to forgo any attempt at conciliation. Instead, he’s run a bluntly partisan presidency, where his rhetoric is geared toward pleasing fanatical Fox News viewers more than creating a broad coalition. It’s a peculiarity of Trump’s behavior that he talks openly about his base, not even pretending to be the president of all Americans.
It’s very strange for a president to talk about his “base” in this manner. (George W. Bush joked about “the elite” being his base, though it was clearly in jest and happened before his election.)
There is some advantage for Trump in fan-servicing. It makes him seem more honest about his goals, and not beholden to cant about bipartisanship. But a president who serves only the base will lead to a further fraying of America’s social fabric and even greater polarization. “The ugly truth is that white nationalists, the KKK, neo-Nazis and other bigots are indeed part of the Trump base,” columnist Brent Budowsky argued at The Hill. “Trump should throw these bigots out of his base. He should say he does not want their support. He should name names and name hate groups, loudly and repeatedly, and say he does not want their votes, their support, their praise and that he believes they are a stain on America.”
Rather than heeding such advice, Trump is moving in the opposite direction—and paying a political price for it. His poll numbers are steadily falling, as the faint-hearted leave him, and even his supposedly unshakeable base is shrinking. But those who are sticking with Trump are even more intensely attached to him. As CBS News reports:
President Trump’s most ardent backers—who call themselves supporters, period, and whom we’ve labeled Believers since the start of this ongoing panel study—remain connected and loyal to the president by what seems a deep cultural and personal link, feeling he “fights for people” like them and speaks in a way they can relate to.... Their loyalty—which they say the president deserves—is to Donald Trump over other political parties and labels like conservative or Republican.
A mind-meld has formed between Trump and his base, vividly on display in the raucous rallies where Trump is most at home. The danger of this fusion is that it’s mutually enabling: Trump and his fervid fans will encourage each other to become yet more extreme. As the president is increasingly criticized from outside his base, he’ll increasingly use his passionate fans as a political shield. And as Charlottesville proves, if those fans end up killing someone, the president will defend them. Caught in the closed loop of fan-servicing, Trump is setting the nation on a path toward further radicalization and further violence.