Republicans owe a debt of gratitude to Joe Biden for launching his presidential campaign on the oft-repeated lie that President Trump referred to neo-Nazis and white nationalists as “very fine people” in Charlottesville. “With those words,” Biden intoned, “the President of the United States drew a moral equivalence between those who were spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
Except he didn’t. On April 12, 2017, the very morning of the clash in Charlottesville, President Trump tweeted, “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets [sic] come together as one!”
Later that afternoon, President Trump addressed the Charlottesville violence on camera. He insisted, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides,” referring to weapon-wielding Antifa activists, who even the New York Times admits became violent in Charlottesville. “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives,” Trump concluded.
Two days later, amid continued accusations that he condoned racial bigotry, President Trump made his point more explicit. “Racism is evil,” he explained. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups, that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
Undeterred by Trump’s clear condemnation of bigotry, the mainstream media continued to harangue the President for his allegedly ambiguous response to the violence, prompting the “very fine people” comment on which Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign. Finally, the media got what they wanted: President Trump defended neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
Except he didn’t. Here is what President Trump actually said:
If you reported it accurately, you would say that the neo-Nazis started this thing. They showed up in Charlottesville. Excuse me. They didn't put themselves down as neo-Nazis. You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group -- excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down -- excuse me. Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him. Good. Are we going to take down his statue. He was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue? It is fine. You are changing history and culture.
You had people—and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists. They should be condemned totally. You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
President Trump began by acknowledging that neo-Nazis started the rally. He then observed that the organizers hid their ideological extremism. They titled the rally “Unite The Right,” rather than, say, “Three Cheers For Hitler” in order to blur the distinction between conservatism and fascism. To this end they also focused the event around mainstream opposition to the removal of historical monuments. Trump then explained the moral dilemmas raised by the removal of historical monuments. Finally, he specifically and explicitly “condemned totally” the “neo-Nazis and the white nationalists” present at the rally.
One might respond by denying that any fine people at all marched in Charlottesville, as Robert Tracinski argues at The Bulwark. Surely those elusive fine people must have heard the others chanting bigoted slogans. If they chose to remain in their company, they couldn't have been all that fine in the first place. Fine. But that would simply mean President Trump imagined fine people who never existed. Regardless, he never spoke well of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and in fact he condemned them repeatedly.
Joe Biden, a longtime race-baiter, launched his campaign on a shameless lie. Unfortunately for him, conservatives have taken the opportunity to recall that hoax and expose the truth.