The real lesson Trump learned from Charlottesville
The content of President Donald Trump’s dig at basketball superstar LeBron James might have been standard Trump fare — questioning the intelligence of a prominent African-American who has been critical of him — but the timing of the tweet made it stand out on Friday night.
The post landed almost exactly a year after the deadly clash between white nationalists and Black Lives Matter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the president refused to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis outright.
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That moment temporarily left Trump on an island, abandoned by Republicans on the Hill and corporate executives who had previously played nice with the president on his business councils, and was a low-water mark of his presidency — one that, according to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, “puts him in the dung heap of presidents who are completely insensitive of race in the United States.”
If that proves to be the case in the long run, a year out from Charlottesville tells a different story and is less clear cut. In fact, while Trump hasn’t changed, he’s no longer isolated, and his race and culture wars now pose one of the biggest challenges to Democrats plotting how to win back the House in 2018 and to take on Trump in 2020.
“The big picture is the fizzle,” said Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard and a prominent Never Trump conservative. “He’s not in good shape politically, but he’s not in worse shape. Charlottesville didn’t change his numbers. Everything has just become more the way it was.”
Indeed, the Republicans in Congress who distanced themselves from Trump during the height of the controversy last summer have since embraced the president on tax reform and his Supreme Court selection, Brett Kavanaugh. Many of the executives who walked away from Trump’s business councils have simply taken their hobnobbing behind closed doors: Now they quietly dine with the president at the White House, or with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner at their Kalorama mansion.
Trump’s poll numbers, while still hitting a ceiling below 50 percent, in the year since Charlottesville have climbed up to a high of 44 percent, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Trump is in high demand as a campaign surrogate among Republican candidates. His supportive gang of Fox News hosts have become more ethno-nationalist in their rhetoric than they were a year ago.
Meanwhile, Trump himself is less constrained than he was after Charlottesville. At his campaign rallies and on Twitter, he has become more unadulterated in his critiques of what he calls the “fake news” media. The advisers who tried to serve as a check on his rash impulses have since left the administration and have been replaced with people more likely to let Trump set his own agenda. And, as he did on Friday, the president has continued to inflame racial tensions — something Democrats and Republicans alike see as fundamental to his power.
With Trump back on his annual working vacation at his Bedminster, New Jersey, country club — the same setting he was in during the Charlottesville crisis — the LeBron tweet served as a reminder that the president has done little to ameliorate that low-water mark of Charlottesville as one of the defining images of his presidency.
“Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon,” Trump tweeted Friday night, about 24 hours into his vacation. “He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!”
The tweet fueled a new round of critics accusing Trump of being racist, and hearkened back to last August, when Trump stubbornly refused to call out the hate groups that had gathered to protest the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, instead making a moral equivalency argument between them and a small group of counterprotesters, and blaming “both sides” for the violence.
“There are certain times in the presidency when you have to stand up to tell the nation who we are as individuals, and to be a moral leader,” Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic former governor of Virginia, said in an interview on Saturday. “He failed at that.” A year after the event itself, McAuliffe said he still believes that the incident would “go down as one of the worst moments of his presidency.”
But in some ways, the experience of Charlottesville, as well as his ability to recover from any short-term crisis, has been empowering for Trump and his allies. Three former aides said the takeaway from Charlottesville is the nihilistic notion that nothing matters except for how things play.