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Is Trump’s Response To Charlottesville Really About Politics?

In this week’s politics chat, we discuss President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, all. Today I want to talk about President Trump’s continued insistence on treating the violence in Charlottesville — where white nationalists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan held a march, and a suspected white nationalist has been charged with killing a woman and injuring others by plowing a car into a group of counterprotesters — as a “both sides” problem. After getting a ton of blowback because his initial statement, on Saturday, failed to explicitly condemn white supremacist groups, Trump made more explicit remarks on Monday. But then today, he returned to the position that “both sides” are to blame.

“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” Trump said. “And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say that right now.”

It was really an amazing, depressing press conference, but we’re political reporters, so … WTF is the political calculus here? (For the sake of this conversation, let’s assume that there was such a calculus.) The idea I’ve seen floating around is that Trump won the White House, in part, by pushing messages and policies that white nationalists liked and is therefore hesitant to condemn those groups because doing so would anger his political base.

But the number of full-fledged neo-Nazis, for example, or KKK members is small. So what’s really going on here?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I think if you pushed and pushed Trump on it, he would never say he supports white nationalists — today’s press conference saw some pretty ugly prevarication, though. When he said “not all of those people were neo-Nazis” of white nationalists who organized a march and were chanting KKK slogans — that was a pretty disturbing false distinction for a president to make.

But what Trump would be proud to say is that he doesn’t support “PC culture,” which is what a lot of people who hold racist beliefs use as a cover: I’m not racist, but I think we’re marginalizing white people. That spins into a whole lot of other things, many of them pretty ugly, but not always rising to the level of bringing out plastic riot shields and guns and beating up black people in Charlottesville and killing someone. A lot of times, racism in America is a lot more coded than neo-Nazi riots. Not always, though.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Clare is making the right point. I think the actual number of neo-Nazis is small. They are not an integral part of Trump’s coalition.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): You have to conclude that we saw the real President Trump in that press conference. He is who he is. I could add to that, but like … how hard is it to condemn white nationalists and neo-Nazis and stick to that condemnation?

In any case, I’d start with a number from Perry’s Charlottesville story: Nearly 20 percent of self-identified Republicans who think there’s “a great deal” of discrimination against whites. Almost half think there’s “a great deal” or “some” discrimination against whites. Those groups, which are bigger than neo-Nazis, are the ones I think Trump had on his mind.

perry: That is why I think he could have condemned them on Saturday, in the same way Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush did. But there is this “PC” culture thing that he campaigned against. So I was not surprised that he did not immediately react the way other Republicans did.

clare.malone: You look to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and what he said — he called the attack domestic terrorism. Sessions is not a guy who is known for being PC.

perry: Right.

clare.malone: Trump could and should have done that. But perhaps his initial statement and his press conference today are signs of the radicalism of people who are helping him write this stuff.

Or, to give them a more charitable read, their ignorance about the effect that certain rhetoric can have.

Or, very believably, these are the feelings Trump himself has about race — he refuses to see nuance in the issue. When a reporter at the press conference today asked him, “What do you think needs to be done to overcome the racial divides in this country?” Trump answered, “Well, I really think jobs can have a big impact.” Pretty telling answer.

perry: Right. Trump may be overdoing it, at least in this instance, in aligning himself against the media/establishment/political correctness.

micah: OK, so take that ~20 percent of Republicans who think there’s a lot of discrimination against whites. I don’t know if they are “white nationalists” per se, but maybe that’s a group — a sizable group — that feels like victims and found in Trump someone they thought would fight for them. Is Trump worried about turning that group off by condemning racism, white nationalism, etc.?

clare.malone: I guess Trump is worried about turning them off, but what I think he misunderstands is that probably the majority of those people who feel that way about whites being discriminated against have internalized the social stigma of being part of, say, the KKK.

Not all, but a lot. We’re still a pretty racist country, but up until at least recently, there’s been a heavy stigma on this kind of ugly belief. Maybe, though, that is changing. Which would be sad.

harry: According to the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, about two-thirds of Trump voters said they are at least somewhat angry that racism exists. We don’t know what’s in people’s hearts, but as Clare said, they’re at least aware of modern cultural norms. A very large chunk of Trump’s voters say they don’t like racism. So I’d imagine that they’d be fine with Trump saying the same thing.

perry: I don’t necessarily think feeling that there is a lot of discrimination against whites makes you a white nationalist. But white people who feel like they are victims of today’s politics and policies — that feels like something that undergirds Trump’s positions. He is proposing to limit legal immigration, for example, because he says it brings down wages of people already here. I guess I think Trump might agree in some ways with those who say whites are facing too much discrimination.

micah: Right — so there does seem like a political risk for him in not appearing as a champion of white, working-class Americans.

I guess, here’s what I’m trying to get at …

We’ve sometimes talked about whether a politician with Trump’s policy agenda and a more conventional, acceptable persona could do even better than Trump has in national politics. But maybe Trump thinks that’s not right — that the anti-PC stuff, the white nationalist rhetoric, is central to his appeal.

perry: It’s hard to know, because Trump rarely talks directly about his political coalition. And his advisers don’t talk about the white nationalism stuff as part of their political coalition. They talk about people opposed to illegal immigration.

clare.malone: But there’s such a thing as going too far on the anti-PC stuff. What’s been effective about Trump’s racial dog-whistling is that he hides it — to some extent — underneath this “law and order” umbrella.

So, MS-13 is going to kill people on Long Island, Mexican criminals are going to rape your daughters, etc.

Remember the GOP convention? The testimonials about people killed by undocumented immigrants?

perry: Yes, all signs are that Trump views this kind of identity politics as central to his politics. But I don’t know if Trump or even Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, ever say that.

We know from Joshua Green’s book “Devil’s Bargain” that Bannon felt like the people who were really passionate about condemning racism were already Hillary Clinton voters.

harry: Can we break this down a little further?

micah: Yeah, go Harry!

harry: The American National Election Studies asked Clinton and Trump voters to give their opinion on different groups. They asked them to rate each group from zero to 100, with 100 being the warmest feelings. I took a look at different groups — specifically, how many Clinton and Trump voters gave each group a rating below 50 (which means they disliked the group more than they liked it).

Among Trump voters, 77 percent gave illegal immigrants a negative rating. But just 12 percent gave blacks a negative rating.

That’s a huge disparity.

clare.malone: That’s really interesting.

micah: Hmmm … That seems like a blunt, semi-misleading measure to me.

perry: That doesn’t tell me much, at all. Illegal immigration is illegal behavior. I’m not surprised people are against it.

harry: Let’s keep going.

micah: Keep going

harry: Forty-seven percent of Trump voters gave Muslims a negative rating.

clare.malone: Well, those demos intersect too …

micah: See, this seems hard to disentangle from the social stigma attached to “disliking” each group.

harry: Perhaps — although part of this survey was conducted among web participants, so among them, I wouldn’t think social stigma would be too much of a factor.

perry: This data set, from the Public Religion Research Institute, I thought was interesting

micah: Yeah, I think we need more indirect questions, like that PRRI study. Here’s a chart from that:

clare.malone: I’ve seen a lot of Confederate flags in very Northern states.

perry: This too:

harry: There was no subtlety in Charlottesville; there were Nazi flags, etc.

It’s one thing to be against removing the Confederate flag. It’s another to come out and say I don’t like black people — as most people would argue happened in Charlottesville.

micah: I mean, the way to do this, I think, is to look at a bunch of poll questions that, to various degrees, get at someone’s racial biases and prejudices without directly asking, “Are you racist?” Check these charts out, from a 2014 article we did …

micah: And here’s the aggregate of a bunch of those different questions:

perry: So I think we should consider two things in terms of Trump’s response. The rally had elements of being anti-black, anti-Semitism, anti-diversity. But it also had elements of being pro-white. Do parts of Trump’s coalition feel like they should be able to defend whiteness? Sure. The defense of Confederate monuments is not exactly the same thing as saying blacks should not marry whites. You can see in the PPRI data that the share of whites who see the flag more as a symbol of Southern pride than a symbol of racism is fairly high, even among the college-educated.

micah: Hmm …

perry: Secondly, we have to consider that, politics aside, Trump may agree at least partially with the ideas that whites/Christians/men are under threat from a society that won’t let them say what they think.

clare.malone: A lot of the white voters in Trump’s coalition take umbrage at the term “white privilege,” saying that they lack economic opportunity. And they resent, say, white men being treated as a powerful, monolithic group.

That’s a powerful political argument to a lot of people, especially if you live in a homogenous area where everyone is white and poor.

micah: It certainly proved powerful in 2016.

I mean, Obama made that point in his famous “A More Perfect Union” speech:

harry: Well, just 3 percent of Trump voters rated Christians, as a group, negatively in the ANES. For Clinton voters, it was 14 percent. I think Trump voters see that type of thing and think there’s a group of liberal elites who don’t like them.

clare.malone: I.e., wearing “deplorables” as a badge of honor, resenting that Clinton had boiled their Trump support down to racism.

harry: Indeed, this goes back to the point made earlier: Most Trump voters don’t see themselves as racist.

perry: I think that word is basically pointless to use — because we don’t have a shared understanding of what racist means in any real way. Beyond Bull Connor-style moves.

And I think it doesn’t do a particularly great job capturing what is happening in America.

harry: That’s a great point.

micah: OK, so we have a bunch of these labels/groups — Nazi, white nationalist, racist, deplorables, people who believe white people are discriminated against, people who are “uncomfortable” with America’s growing diversity, etc. — and those overlap some but are also very different.

But at least based on the numbers we referenced above, those feelings and grievances do represent a big chunk of Trump’s support. I don’t know if it’s 10 percent or 40 percent or whatever. But Trump lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College by a hair. So aren’t we in a situation where we have a president who is catering to those groups? He may have bungled that catering in response to Charlottesville, but he is doing it.

clare.malone: We have a president definitely catering to the group that believes white people are being discriminated against/people who are uncomfortable with diversity.

perry: Well, if we broaden things out that widely, didn’t Richard Nixon/Ronald Reagan/Bill Clinton appeal to some of that.

micah: Yeah, fair point.

perry: This is part of the problem: “Racist” is being defined too narrowly in some instances and too broadly in others. It irritates white and Republicans who feel like everything is labeled racist, but also liberals and minorities who feel like nothing is considered racist unless you are Bull Connor or George Wallace.

clare.malone: What’s new is that we can’t say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Trump isn’t dog whistling to white nationalist groups. I think today’s press conference was pretty unsettling to that end.

That’s new in the modern presidency.

harry: Yeah, I mean the difference is Trump couldn’t say neo-Nazis were bad on Saturday. That’s the difference.

perry: I guess I feel like Trump is getting this wrong for an obvious reason: Who else are these people who feel racial resentment or are outright racists going to vote for? Hillary Clinton? Kamala Harris?

He can offend David Duke.

He can go pretty far in offending David Duke and keep this part of the Republican Party behind him.

micah: Are we sure about that, Perry?

perry: Who else are they going to vote for?

micah: I guess my question is how much that bleeds over into the less overt groups?

Take the Bannon-level white nationalists …

They’re not wearing white hoods, but they have a pretty explicit, racialized set of policy goals. Doesn’t Trump need that group to believe that he’s a champion of white people?

I mean, Trump must think that, right?

How else to explain him not condemning neo-Nazis?

perry: He doesn’t like condemning people the media tells him to.

I happen to think this is less about some kind of grand political calculation than a petulant president.

micah: (Yeah, I agree with that.)

perry: He doesn’t like the media and elites telling him what to do, particularly about issues of race and culture.

harry: He knows that bashing the media is something that unites his party.

perry: I also think he and his team genuinely see white nationalists as like an alternative version of Black Lives Matter.

‘Obama never had to condemn Black Lives Matter; why should Trump have to condemn the radicals who like him?’

That is what it sounds like Trump thinks.

micah: IDK. I’m a little worried that we’re underestimating the size of the white nationalist vote.

perry: I guess I’m worried we can never calculate it.

harry: I think that’s right.

clare.malone: You’re likely never going to be able to get an explicit, actual polling read.

perry: What I’m not sure about is whether Confederate monument defenders are“white nationalists.” Or whether that term is only for those who say whites must control the country. And people who say blacks should not marry whites seems like a different issue.

Do all the various white power groups support Trump? Probably yes. In terms of policy, I don’t think he politically can afford to say that he supports affirmative action, for example. Could he call for taking down Confederate monuments? I think yes politically, but that’s a closer call. (Trump, to be clear, seems to oppose taking down those monuments.) He can certainly say that he doesn’t support white supremacy.

micah: See, that’s revealing. I don’t think he could call for taking down Confederate monuments without having big problems with his base. I’m much more willing to take out the broad brush.

clare.malone: He’s not going to do that. Look how he handled those questions today. He said if you take down the statues of Robert E. Lee, that might lead you to taking down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Trump’s reasoning on this being that those other guys were slave owners too. Washington and Jefferson, of course, didn’t lead a rebellion against the U.S. government over the issue of slavery and states rights, though, certainly, yes, they did own slaves.

perry: But is there a huge political risk with his base? I can see Micah’s point. I’m not sure of it.

micah: OK, final question that gets at some of this in a different way: If Trump fires Bannon, will Trump have a meaningful political problem?

perry: I don’t have a great sense of who defines white nationalism in today’s politics. Is it Trump, David Duke, Breitbart or someone or something else? Who decides what violates the tenets of this kind of white nationalism? Who decides Trump has gone too far in the tolerance direction and says we must oppose him? Ann Coulter? Bannon when he is outside of the White House?

So if Bannon is fired but Trump remains generally anti-free trade, anti-immigration and Stephen Miller stays, Trump will be fine politically with his base.

clare.malone: I think Bannon would lob inflammatory criticism at the White House if he were let go.

Would that affect economic populist Trump supporters who read/watch a certain part of the right-wing media? Or would the prominence of Fox/Hannity as ever-loving supporters of Trump drown out the noise?

I don’t know, honestly!

Although, I guess I can see a scenario where Bannon is let go on good terms and he writes from a not-entirely-confrontational point of view from the outside.

perry: If Bannon is fired and it’s part of a general repositioning of Trump as a Jeb Bush/Rubio-style figure, yeah, then Trump will have a problem. If it means that H.R. McMaster/John Kelly/Ivanka Trump have taken over, Trump will have a problem with the Bannon wing of the party. But I doubt Trump is headed there.

Isn’t Donald Trump the leading voice of this kind of politics in the White House, not Bannon?

micah: Yes.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.