WASHINGTON ― Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said the presidency is “preeminently a place of moral leadership.” By drawing an equivalence between white nationalist groups and people protesting on behalf of equality, pundits and historians say, Donald Trump has ceded that responsibility.
Trump ignited a firestorm of bipartisan criticism this week when he blamed “many sides” and “both sides” for the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and defended racist demonstrators there. Protesters in Charlottesville waved Nazi flags and burning torches, and shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans as they marched, but Trump ― after describing racism as “evil” on Monday ― insisted Tuesday that many people at the rally “were there to innocently protest” the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“What Trump did today is a moral disgrace,” Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer said Tuesday. Prominent conservative radio host Charlie Sykes called Trump’s equivocal condemnation of white supremacists a “moral dumpster fire.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) framed the issue in a similar way, tweeting: “There is no question who he is. The critical moral question is: who are we? We can not surrender America to Trump.”
Other Democrats, like former Barack Obama aide David Axelrod, wondered whether Trump would make some sort of effort to heal wounds and bring the nation together ― perhaps by giving a major speech, or even attending the funeral of Heather Heyer, the young woman killed when a driver rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville.
It’s become increasingly clear, however, that Trump has no interest in taking such steps. During an angry news conference in New York on Tuesday, Trump parried questions about the so-called alt-right movement by asking, “What about the alt-left?” While in the past he’d been happy to issue moral judgments about other politicians, fellow heads of state, journalists and clothing retailers, here, facing questions about racism, he appeared to reject the role of moral arbiter.
“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” he said, after a reporter asked whether he was placing white supremacists and those who protested against them on the same footing.
It wasn’t just pundits and politicians who urged Trump to live up to the moment. Historians, too, said that with his reluctance to single out racism and bigotry for condemnation, Trump has ceded the presidency’s moral authority and threatened America’s leadership at home and abroad.
Trump lost “the moral standing to speak for or about America,” Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol told HuffPost. “Every second he is in office he damages and endangers us. In this instance, he is directly encouraging organized, violent white supremacists who will bring public agony to many places for months to come.”
Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer, called Trump’s remarks on Tuesday “morally ambiguous” at best. He predicted that Trump’s behavior will further erode the public’s trust in political institutions.
“We have to be in a position, both as a country and as a global community, where we believe what the president says, where you have some innate confidence that things are in fairly good hands,” Meacham said. “And I think for a lot of people, that level of confidence started low [with Trump], and it’s gotten to be almost nonexistent. So I think it’s an exacerbating moment.”
As Trump spoke on Tuesday, forcefully defending his initial, tepid response to Charlottesville, presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted a drawing of Abraham Lincoln with his head in his hands.
Barack Obama biographer and Washington Post editor David Maraniss was more explicit, calling on all living former presidents to make a joint statement urging Trump to resign.
Veteran NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, meanwhile, said he doubts whether Trump can reverse the damage he’s done in the wake of Charlottesville.
“He’s going to have to find a way to stitch the country together again, and frankly, I don’t know if he’s capable of doing that in his own mind,” Brokaw said. “He’s the moral authority by the office that he has, and it’s about time for him to exercise that.”