I tweeted something mere hours ago that I’m now convinced is wrong.
Incidentally, I think the WH is probably right about public opinion: Everyone bothered by Trump's response to Cville already disapproved.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) August 14, 2017
Donald Trump once said he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose his supporters, and during the campaign he kept proving himself right. I figured this incident would prove similar.
But since that tweet, two things happened that changed my mind.
One, someone in the White House managed to convince Trump it was in his best interest to specifically condemn the white supremacist groups that have rallied in support of him. Trump must have reason to think playing footsie with white supremacists was causing him political damage if he was willing to give this teleprompter statement that he obviously did not want to give.
Two, Gallup’s tracking poll came out showing the president’s approval numbers at their worst level ever. Of course, one-day changes in polling are noisy; we’ll know more in a couple of days, when the entire poll sample will consist of voters who know about the events in Charlottesville. But given Trump’s statement, he probably had his own indications that opinion was moving in the direction Gallup shows.
I think the right frame to think about the political damage to Trump from his original soft reaction to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville is by thinking about “the deplorables.”
There is a large portion of Trump’s white voter base that’s really offended by the idea they are associated with white nationalists or overt racists – even if, at the same time, appeals to white resentment are a part of what draws them to Trump.
These are the sort of people who make a lot of statements that start “I’m not racist, but…”
They really didn’t like it when Hillary Clinton called them deplorable, because when they insist they’re not racist, they mean it. They know they’re not racist because their idea of a racist is a torch-wielding white power protester, which they’re not.
So when a bunch of white power protesters made a big spectacle of themselves, and then one of them killed a woman and injured more than a dozen other people, and then Trump gave an equivocal statement that seemed to validate their support of him anyway, this was embarrassing for Trump’s other white backers.
First it was Clinton; now it’s Trump himself, lumping them in with the deplorables.
A key part of Trump’s nasty appeal is how he says the quiet part loud. But there are a lot of white people out there in America who want to hear some of the quiet parts loud but don’t want overt white supremacist groups to be validated.
And this may have been the political logic behind Trump’s kicking-and-screaming denunciation of white supremacists.
For Trump’s detractors, the statement is obviously too little, too late. But for some of his supporters, it might be the validation they need to signal that they’re not deplorable, and that they have ideological distance from the fringe elements they agree really are deplorable.