It takes just 24 characters to type out the simple sentence, "That's not what I meant." The sentiment "he doesn't speak for me," is just as concise. A president who, say, favors Twitter as a rapid-response vehicle could easily have typed in both of those sentences and still had 92 characters to spare.
That, of course, is not what President Donald Trump did Saturday as David Duke, the one-time Ku Klux Klan leader, unabashed anti-Semite, former state representative and way-too-close-for comfort candidate for Louisiana governor, emerged as a willing focal point of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Duke's heyday in Louisiana was a quarter century ago, long before he went to prison for ripping off his supporters to pay his gambling debts, and before his various tries for a political comeback fell far short. But Trump's rise has given Duke a new platform, because he's been out there claiming that the president's racially inflammatory language proves his moment has finally come —and even more because the normally quick-triggered Trump is so reluctant to call him and his ilk out.
It happened during the campaign, when Duke made waves by telling his remaining supporters that voting against Trump would amount to "treason against your heritage." Rather than quickly reject the sentiment, Trump spent an uncomfortable stretch dodging questions and feigning ignorance before finally issuing a defensive disavowal.
It happened again Saturday, before the violent march took a deadly turn when a participant plowed his car into a crowded street and a state police helicopter crashed. Never one to run away from a microphone, Duke was widely quoted crediting the show of ugliness and intolerance to Trump's rise.
"This represents a turning point for the people of this country," Duke said. "We are determined to take our country back, we're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump, and that's what we believed in, that's why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back and that's what we gotta do."
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is facing pressure from both sides of the aisle for…
Think of how easy it would have been for Trump to take to Twitter and shut that down. Rather than waiting around and eventually issuing a statement that never mentioned the white supremacist, pro-Nazi underpinnings of the violence but did somehow implicate "many sides," Trump could have whipped out his phone and made a statement by distancing himself from Duke. That he didn't, again, makes you wonder how much he agrees with Duke's take on things, or is simply reluctant to criticize those who support him. (Monday, after two days of criticism, the president did finally issue a forceful statement denouncing "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.")
It's not like Trump would have been going out on a limb. When Duke was a force in Louisiana politics, top fellow Republicans, all the way up to President George H.W. Bush, forcefully renounced him.
Saturday he would have had plenty of company as well, among many Republicans who didn't tiptoe around what was going on in Charlottesville. They include U.S. senators like John McCain, of Arizona, who declared that "white supremacists aren't patriots, they're traitors," and Orrin Hatch, of Utah, who tweeted out that "we should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home." There was also this from Tom Cotton, of Arkansas: "These contemptible little men do not speak for what is just, noble, and best about America."
In that number was U.S. Rep. and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Metairie, who wrote in from recovery from the gunshot wound he suffered earlier this summer, and who has never supported Duke but has been caught courting Duke supporters. Scalise put his full support behind defeating "white supremacy and all forms of hatred."
Hopefully, such talk out of the party's top echelons will take, and perhaps even translate into kinder and gentler policy priorities. Regardless, good for them calling things as they see them.
As for those, like Trump, who still can't or choose not to see what's right in front of them, here's a handy rule of thumb that might help sort through the "many sides" confusion: If David Duke is on one side, you belong on the other.