Donald Trump isn't a racist. Not in any conventional sense. He's far too narcissistic, self-centered and opportunistic for that. While the current crop of white nationalists proclaim loyalty to some mythical idea of whiteness, a tribal affiliation with an imaginary west European identity, Trump's only loyalty is to himself. Hardly a white supremacist, he's a Trump supremacist. He loves those who support him, belittles those who oppose him or are insufficiently loyal. He surrounds himself with rich, white men because those are the people he knows. He has no racial or tribal loyalty. His sympathies lie with the white supremacists, not because he shares their dream of an ethnically pure state, but because their vision of the individuals who should be running things embodies how he sees himself. His recklessness and lack of any ideology make him all the more dangerous.
His most recent comments, calling out the "bad dudes on the other side" highlights how he supports and empowers the alt-right. By focusing on violent acts committed by people on "both sides" and then making bland statements saying that he opposes "hatred, bigotry and racism in all forms" he sidesteps any specific criticism or condemnation of the people and organizations leading the alt-right charge, while also giving comfort to those who claim that Black Lives Matter supporters (among others) are engaged in hatred, bigotry and racism.
The murder and beatings that occurred in Charlottesville are horrible. But focusing on the violence deftly turns attention away from the ideas. What should be even more shocking is that a mob of people bearing torches marched in support of the profoundly un-American idea that power in this country should be held only by those who exemplify a particular vision of white nationalism and who explicitly reject the principles of equality that the nation was founded on.
There's no acceptable justification for the violence perpetrated under the Antifa banner. It is wrong morally and it is self-defeating tactically. But I recognize that those who are willing to engage in it do so because they feel that the threat posed to American values by the alt-right is so severe that drastic action is justified. They believe that the attempt to spread those ideas is an act of violence itself and that it must be prevented by any means necessary. I believe they're right about the seriousness of the threat, but wrong about the tactics that can be used to oppose it. But focusing on the violence, without examining the ideas behind it, risks equating their ideas with the ideas of those who are explicitly seeking to destroy an America that is built on the principle that every person has equal value. This should be repugnant to every American patriot.
If the people who came to participate in the Unite the Right march had been as mild as lambs their presence should have horrified Americans just as much. Spencer's manifesto, "The Charlottesville Statement," was written specifically to crystallize and advertise the views of the alt-right in advance of the march. It is explicitly racist, explicitly anti-Semitic. It proclaims the existential necessity of defining the state along racial and ethnic lines. The people who came to march were not there to debate what we should do about statues celebrating Confederate war heroes. They were there as part of a movement that seeks the end of a country built on democratic values.
How best to govern a nation founded on the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution has been the substance of political debate since the beginning. The ideas of the alt-right are not part of that debate. They are an explicit rejection of those principles and a rejection of the two and a half centuries that the nation has struggled to live up to them. They are fundamentally anti-American.
But Trump's focus on the violence and the "bad dudes" implies that these ideas are just as worthy of consideration as any others. After all, he says they are held by "some very fine people." That the President of the United States can't find it in himself to fiercely and unequivocally reject and condemn those ideas is profoundly terrifying. I don't think it's because he shares that ideology. They just give him the adulation that he craves.
Donald Trump isn't a racist. It's much worse than that.