Why Trump Struggles to Condemn White Supremacists
President Trump's remarks about Charlottesville are a window into his mind.
Posted Aug 24, 2017
Political pundits are viewing President Trump’s equating the white supremacist protestors and counter-protestors in Charlottesville as reflecting nothing more than a political calculation – playing to his white, anti-liberal base. They continue to miss that Trump reveals his mind just about every time he says or does something extreme.
According to Trump, both the white supremacist protesters and counter-protesters were responsible for the violence. Incredulously, he further claimed that there were some “very fine people” on the side of the white supremacists. Who stands with white supremacists except those sympathetic to their beliefs?
If Trump’s belief about those “very fine people” is not entirely based in reality, it would seem to have another source: his internal representation of white supremacists, what he sees in his mind’s eye when he pictures people who associate with them. They aren’t all “bad people.”
For anyone familiar with Trump family history, this representation brings to mind the most important influence on Trump, his father Frederick. Frederick was arrested at a KKK rally in Queens, though it’s not clear if he was a member of the organization. He may have been there because it was good for his business.
Is Trump maintaining unconscious loyalty to his father by avowing that “very fine people” associate with white supremacists?
Regardless, Trump seems to be utterly oblivious that this belief and his false equivalency between white supremacist protestors and counter-protestors are morally repugnant. A person who believes such things would seem to lack the psychological qualities necessary to know racism when he sees it – i.e., internal representations of these groups based on a sense of morality.
Trump’s father would also appear to be relevant to the matter of a moral deficit. Biographers describe Frederick as a ruthless businessman who was obsessed with amassing a fortune, unconstrained by conscience. According to Politico, for example, federal investigators discovered that he took $15 million in additional rent from a government housing program, as well as a large fee for himself, through creative accounting.
Like his father, the core of Trump’s self is his business interests. A singular calculation seems to guide much of Trump’s behavior: “What’s good for me?” That’s why he has never cared much about social issues. Charlottesville was not a situation in which siding with one group or the other was clearly good for him. So he didn’t take a side.
Trump’s beliefs about Charlottesville appear to reflect other aspects of his personality. Since the day he announced his candidacy – the same day he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals”, white supremacists have lavished Trump with praise. Liberal-minded people, by contrast, have been extremely critical of him. For someone with the kind of personality that Trump appears to have, admiration is psychological oxygen, and criticism is an intolerable personal threat.
Trump surrounds himself with sycophantic advisers, hosts campaign-style rallies seven months after taking the oath of office, and brags about imagined accomplishments – because he needs endless admiration, even from himself. (Only Abraham Lincoln was more presidential than him.) The flip side of this trait is a hypersensitivity to criticism of any kind, as betrayed by his compulsive tweeting, and his infallibility. The only way to guarantee that Trump would condemn white supremacists as quickly and as sharply as he has so many others would be for them to criticize him.
It is likely difficult for Trump to condemn admirers, and very difficult to side instead with those who have relentlessly criticized and rebuked him.
Personality is destiny. According to the New York Times, after his comments on Charlottesville some of Trump’s top advisors questioned if he has the capacity to be President. His support is shrinking in his own Party, among military and business leaders, and nationally. The combination of a lacking moral sense, infallibility, and a desperate need for admiration is not just unsavory. For President Trump, it’s dangerous. These traits make it likely that he will continue to react to the events of the day in outlandish ways, and continue to double-down on such views when he is criticized for having them while his base admires him for the same.