White nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend drew bipartisan condemnation, particularly after a car plowed into counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring more than a dozen. Many observers called the apparent attack an act of domestic terrorism. “Go home,” Virginia Gov. McAuliffe, a Democrat, told white supremacists in a press conference Saturday. “You are not wanted in this great commonwealth.” GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan called white supremacism a “scourge” and said that, “Hate and terrorism must be confronted and defeated.”
President Trump’s response to the violence, by contrast, was comparatively mild and, in the view of many commenters, inadequate. Trump tweeted that we should “come together as one” in the face of hatred and violence and called the events in Charlottesville “sad!” In a short statement from his golf course in New Jersey on Saturday, he said Americans need to reject violence “from many sides.” But as of Sunday morning, he had yet to denounce the white supremacist protesters specifically, and he declined to label the car crash an act of terrorism. (On Saturday, Charlottesville police charged a man, apparently the driver of the car, with second-degree murder.)
Trump’s comments are striking for a couple of reasons. For one, Trump repeatedly denounced his predecessor, Barack Obama, for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” to refer to attacks by Islamist radicals. For another, denouncing Friday’s white supremacist protest and Saturday’s (apparent) attack should have been comparatively easy for an American politician. In recent years, political norms emphasizing “colorblindness” in public life have made it tough for presidents to talk about structural racism, but rejecting rallies and groups like the ones coming together in Charlottesville should be straightforward. Photographs and press reports indicated that some of Friday and Saturday’s protesters gave Nazi salutes and chanted slogans associated with the Nazis, and at least one person carried a Nazi flag.
There is a long history of U.S. presidents proving reluctant to take strong stands in response to racial violence. Democratic and Republican presidents alike were unable and, often, unwilling, to address the most egregious abuses of the Jim Crow South. And that caution extended well into the modern era. Political realities have meant that presidents have rarely led the way on race relations, but Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville stands out for lagging so far behind.
In 1906, for example, a group of African-American soldiers in Brownsville, Texas, was accused of shooting multiple people. They were acquitted by a court and there was no real evidence of their guilt — but President Theodore Roosevelt issued a dishonorable discharge for all of the accused soldiers. Roosevelt’s critics accused him of placating the angry mob for political reasons, as Roosevelt’s Republican Party had long tried to make electoral progress in the South.
Later in the 20th century, several presidents struggled to respond to lynchings, the violent, extra-judicial killing of African-Americans accused of crimes. (Recent estimates suggest that nearly 4,000 people died this way in the South between 1877 and 1950.) The NAACP had to lobby both Democrat Woodrow Wilson (who held and acted on racist views) and his Republican successor Warren G. Harding. Wilson did eventually speak out against lynching, but it took several years of lobbying by the NAACP to convince him to do so. As political scientist Megan Francis has written, “Only through an unyielding onslaught of protest was [the NAACP] able to obtain support from Wilson.” Harding, meanwhile, made some initial statements about lynching, Francis found, but did not continue to pressure Congress to adopt anti-lynching legislation. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he was limited by his party’s ambitions in the South.
Even in cases when presidents did end up taking more aggressive action on racial issues, they often did so reluctantly. In 1957, for example, Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops (and federalized the Arkansas National Guard) to quell unrest in Little Rock, Arkansas, and enforce a court decision mandating the racial integration of schools. But Eisenhower took that step only after the crisis had been going on for three weeks, and he avoided addressing the substance of the ruling or the question of civil rights, instead citing the need to enforce the law. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, was also slow to move forward civil rights, although he eventually found his voice on the issue as political pressure mounted. In June, 1963, Kennedy addressed the nation on the question of civil rights and urged Congress to pass legislation, which he had previously been reluctant to pursue.
More recent presidents have faced a somewhat different set of issues. Since the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, presidents have been able to embrace the principles of racial equality without fear of political backlash. But they have still often struggled to respond to racially charged situations. In 2005, President George W. Bush sparked outrage with his slow response as Hurricane Katrina wrought destruction in New Orleans, especially in predominantly black sections of the city. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus tied the slow federal response to the race of those affected by the flood. In response, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the most prominent black official in the administration, defended its record on race.
In 2014, Obama urged calm after the announcement that the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would not be charged, and many networks showed him speaking on a split screen alongside images of Ferguson descending into disorder. In both cases, the leaders appeared disconnected from the suffering of their citizens, at least in the moment. For different reasons, Bush and Obama faced delicate political situations. Bush led a party that had equated government assistance with moral degeneracy, a theme that came up as criticism piled up over the anemic federal response to the disaster. For Obama, the question of race was perpetually complex and fraught.
Presidential responses to racial violence and injustice have not all been discouraging. In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and years of build-up from the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson staked his legacy on the issue. As a presidential candidate, Obama addressed the nation candidly about prejudices and fears. Obama’s eulogy for the slain pastor Clementa Pinckney is considered one of his most powerful speeches. And in a piece of rhetoric that gets less attention, George H. W. Bush responded to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles by turning attention to the police violence against King.
Although racial politics have changed, the political dilemma facing presidents is dismayingly familiar. When it comes to race questions, presidents have sought to balance competing groups and their concerns. Presidents are products of their times — and they are politicians. In this sense, Trump’s bland equivocation fits right in. When it comes to race relations in the United States, presidents rarely cut through politics to express bold statements about equality; rather, they tend to be caught up in political conflict, and respond only to sustained pressure.
But history doesn’t absolve Trump. His tepid response to such overt and violent racism recalls a much earlier era, when people who espoused these violent ideologies held real political power. The political calculus for a contemporary president should be different. Congressional Republicans, for example, like Marco Rubio and Cory Gardner have asked the president to more strongly condemn what’s happened. Presidents have typically lagged behind the racial justice activists of their day — sometimes far behind. But Trump is unusual in also lagging behind today’s widely understood norms.
This weekend is not, of course, the first time that Trump has appeared reluctant to denounce white nationalists or other racist groups and individuals, many of whom supported his presidential campaign last year. He retweeted accounts and memes with ties to white supremacist groups, and he waited until deep into the campaign before firmly disavowing the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. That suggests that Trump’s cautious statements, like those of past presidents, may stem in part from his reluctance to alienate a key group of supporters; in Trump’s case, however, those key supporters include avowed racists.