It’s a dance that Donald Trump does when the subject of the violence and racism bubble up around his run for the presidency as the 2016 Republican nominee. Call it the Deniability Tango: Trump dances around the problems that come with his supporters and their frequent ugliness, which he officially disavows in certain carefully worded statements, often accompanied by a wink and a nod.
It’s a three-step affair:
- First, Trump appears to embrace the racism and/or violent acts committed by his followers and admirers, either by making excuses for the behavior or pretending not to know about their racist reputations, as he demurs, hems and haws.
- Second, Trump either briefly disavows the act or issues a brief statement making an official disavowal of the person or behavior in question that briefly mentions why such things are unacceptable.
- Third, he reflexively refers to this pro forma disavowal whenever the subject is raised by the press without ever explaining or describing the motives for it.
The sincerity of these disavowals is open to question, but their effectiveness is not: Rather than tamping down the raucous racism and violence at Trump rallies and at white nationalist events praising Trump, the frequency of these incidents has risen, along with the abiding enthusiasm of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and various far-right extremists for the GOP nominee.
Trump’s efforts to distance himself from the far right, such as they are, in real life appear to have the opposite effect.
The clearest case of this came when white supremacist icon David Duke initially embraced Trump in February, and Trump was asked about it in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Instead of answering forthrightly, Trump fumbled:
Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.
When Tapper explained that he just wanted him to unequivocally condemn groups like the Klan and people like Duke, Trump continued to demur:
Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I would have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them. And, certainly, I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong.
The next day, with an uproar proceeding in the media, Trump quickly issued an official disavowal, saying that he had a “bad earpiece” in his interview with Tapper and so hadn’t understood the questions: “I’m sitting in a house in Florida, with a very bad earpiece that they gave me, and you could hardly hear what he was saying. But what I heard was ‘various groups.’ And I don’t mind disavowing anybody and I disavowed David Duke. And I disavowed him the day before at a major news conference. … I have no problem disavowing groups, but I’d at least like to know who they are. It would be very unfair to disavow a group if the group shouldn’t be disavowed. I have to know who the groups are. But I disavowed David Duke.”
The effectiveness of the disavowal became clear when Duke, several months later, announced that he was planning to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana, inspired largely by Trump’s run. “I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years,” he said in his announcement video.
“Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see the denunciations [of Duke] are not sincere,” observed SPLC Senior Fellow Mark Potok to the Huffington Post. “The sad reality is that David Duke and Donald Trump are appealing to precisely the same constituency.”
Trump has performed the same dance when it comes to racist violence committed by his supporters. When two Boston men were arrested last fall and charged with hate crimes for their brutal assault on a Hispanic man – which they explained by telling officers that “Donald Trump was right” and that “all these illegals need to be deported” – Trump explained to reporters: “I will say, the people that are following me are very passionate, they love this country, they want this country to be great again, and they are very passionate.”
As the violence has spread to include his rallies, where a number of anti-Trump protesters have been violently assaulted (and eventually, at several rallies, where his supporters were assaulted), Trump has similarly danced around the issue by defending the perpetrators’ motives but then ultimately issuing a perfunctory disavowal.
Asked in the March 10 GOP presidential debate about escalating violence at his rallies, Trump explained:
I will say this. We have 25, 30,000 people — you’ve seen it yourself. People come with tremendous passion and love for the country, and when they see protest — in some cases — you know, you’re mentioning one case, which I haven’t seen, I heard about it, which I don’t like. But when they see what’s going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable. They have anger.
They love this country. They don’t like seeing bad trade deals, they don’t like seeing higher taxes, they don’t like seeing a loss of their jobs where our jobs have just been devastated. And I know — I mean, I see it. There is some anger. There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beautiful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all, Jake.
Pressed further, Trump blamed the violence on the people showing up to protest him. “We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things. They are swinging, they are really dangerous and they get in there and they start hitting people. And we had a couple big, strong, powerful guys doing damage to people, not only the loudness, the loudness I don’t mind. But doing serious damage. And if they’ve got to be taken out, to be honest, I mean, we have to run something.”
Most of the videos showing violence against protesters at Trump events, however, reveal ordinary people behaving peacefully while carrying anti-Trump signs who are then assaulted by angry Trump protesters. And while anti-Trump protests outside Trump rallies have generally quieted down since reaching a fever pitch in early June, conditions inside the rallies for anti-Trump protesters have, if anything, worsened, as a protester at an August event in Mechanicsburg, PA, discovered when he was beaten for carrying a sign that read “Refugees Welcome.”
But Trump’s denial that he was encouraging such behavior is particularly laughable, considering the extent to which he has openly told participants at his rally to “beat the hell out of” protesters, told them he’d like to “punch [a protester] in the face,” and has described for his rally-goers the violent fate that “back in the old days” was expected for such protesters.
Moreover, his rallies have also attracted outright white supremacists and nationalists, neo-Nazis and “Patriot” extremists and their likeminded supporters who have had no compunction about behaving in a threatening manner, such as the tattooed man who screamed at Latino protesters outside a Trump rally in Phoenix.
The most noteworthy incident involving this trend occurred March 1 in Louisville, Ky., when a black woman was forcefully ejected from a Trump rally by a number of people, including Matthew Heimbach, leader of the “alt right” Traditionalist Workers Party, who was recorded shoving the woman. Heimbach and several others now face criminal charges for their behavior.
Heimbach drew even greater national scrutiny when a California chapter of his organization held a rally in Sacramento in July that attracted an even larger crowd of counter-protesters, with multiple assaults and stabbings resulting from the ensuing melee.
“We’re essentially just going to show up and make sure that the Donald Trump supporters are defended from the leftist thugs,” TWP spokesman Matt Parrott said.
Trump has continued to deflect any questions about the extremists drawn to his campaign. When asked about Duke’s plans to run for the Senate and his claims to have been inspired by Trump, the candidate quickly responded with another disavowal: “Because last time with another person in this position, I did it very quickly. And they said, ‘He didn’t do it fast enough,’ ” Trump said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Rebuked. Is that OK? Rebuked, done.”
Even then, though, Trump couldn’t help qualifying the disavowal. Asked if he would support the Democrat running against Duke, he demurred: “I guess, depending on who the Democrat (is) — but the answer would be yes.”
As Potok observed, it was “about the weakest and most pathetic denunciation yet.”