The allegation that the mainstream media disseminates “fake news” about the Trump administration often can seem overwrought, even a kind of caricature. Yet the nearly universal media response to President Trump’s news conference at which he addressed the Charlottesville violence can only reinforce it. One day this response may make a rich subject for future historians analyzing it as earlier historians probed witch-burnings, pogroms, and other outbreaks of mass hysteria. They likely will focus on the spectacle of sophisticated, experienced, well credentialed people—Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper, Joe Scarborough, to name three of dozens—responding to Trump’s comments on the tragic weekend as if they were, say, undergraduate social justice warriors at Middlebury College.
First, the transmission of facts, which might be the essential point of journalism. Trump approached the Trump Tower podium Tuesday afternoon hoping to talk about infrastructure. The media wanted to talk about Charlottesville (ignoring, not surprisingly, Chicago, where nine people were murdered over the weekend).
The meat of Trump’s answer can be broken down into parts. First, he praised the young woman who was murdered, called the driver who ran her over a disgrace to his country, wasn’t certain of the semantics whether he should be accused of terrorism or murder.
Second, he asked a reporter for a definition of the alt-right, a term probably as imprecise as “socialist”—and perhaps a reasonable way of expressing uncertainty about the actual center of gravity of a seemingly elastic group that includes such disparate ideological figures as Trump’s own American nationalist aide Steve Bannon, the white nationalist Richard Spencer, and the neo-Nazis Spencer has invited into his tent. Third, he reaffirmed the statement he made on Saturday, condemning in the strongest possible terms bigotry and violence.
Then he fatefully threw out the red meat, denouncing what he called the “alt left,” or “Antifa,” which showed up in Charlottesville, without a permit, intending, as was evident to anyone paying attention to the group’s past actions, on physically attacking those attending the alt-right demonstration. He reiterated his previous statement that there was “blame on both sides.” He repeated his disdain for “neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” saying they should be “condemned totally.” Then he noted that some people had come simply to protest the taking down of the Robert E. Lee statue, erected over a hundred years ago.
So how did the media report this message, in which he singled out for condemnation white nationalists and neo-Nazis, lamented the violence on both sides, and posited that many people involved were “fine people” demonstrating for relatively normal things—that is, for the maintenance of a statue, or protesting against the alt-right’s bigotry?
It was hard to miss. Headline after headline streaming on the news chyrons on CNN and MSNBC asserted that Trump had defended Nazis, while the transcript (and a video) shows plainly and unambiguously he had done nothing of the sort. Commentators on the two major cable channels were hysterical, some guests labeling Trump a white supremacist, wondering why Jared and Ivanka or the minority members of his administration had not abandoned him. A New York Times story records the “chills” experienced by Chuck Todd upon hearing Trump, the shock of Jake Tapper.
Joe Scarborough said on his TV show that congressional Republicans should essentially go on strike, telling the president they will not pass any legislation whatever until Trump convincingly assures them that he regrets his remarks. New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush on Morning Joe accused the president of being an anti-Semite who “besmirches and insults” the faith of Jews. The Times blatantly misrepresented Trump’s remarks with a frontpage headline: “Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost.”
Trump had committed the unpardonable sin, in their eyes, of denouncing left wing extremism. Those who watched video of the event could see, quite plainly, that the antifa were intent on instigating violence, far more than the LARPing Nazis or pathetic Klansmen.
In his sometimes clumsy way, Trump was making the same point as New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who was on the ground in Charlottesville covering the event. She noticed that the far left counter-protesters were intent on instigating violence and tweeted that “the hard left seemed as hate-filled as the alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” Later, perhaps sensing she was in danger of transgressing some sort of unofficial party line, she amended her thought. She added that the leftists were “violent, not hate-filled. They were standing up to hate.” Of course, “standing up to hate” (of whites) is exactly what the alt right would say they are doing as well.
Stolberg’s original tweet, and her need to amend it, are telling. There has been a huge upsurge in left wing violence during the past year. At one extreme, a Bernie Sanders volunteer recently tried to murder the GOP congressional leadership, severely wounding Congressman Steve Salise. Murders of police officers are accelerating, in some cases cold blooded assassinations by Black Lives Matter supporters. Right wing speakers such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray and Ben Shapiro are regularly prevented—by violence—from speaking on college campuses. Pro-Trump rallies have been cancelled under threat of leftist violence in “tolerant” Portland. Those attending a pro-Trump inaugural ball, “the Deploraball,” were pelted by batteries and bottles and chants of “Nazi Scum” by the same antifa who were protesting in Charlotte. (My wife and I were among those targeted). The Deploraball organizers had in fact gone to considerable lengths to bar white nationalists from involvement in the planning or speaking; it was a pro-Trump, multicultural, and multiracial celebration. But for the antifa, and the vast swarm of left wing social justice warriors, any kind of Trump supporter is “Nazi Scum” by definition, people whose First Amendment rights to speak and gather should be denied.
It was probably Trump’s awareness of this—an extremely important social fact sedulously ignored by vast legions of mainstream media—that prompted Trump to speak out against the violence of both sides. In doing so, he displayed a far more sophisticated understanding of the overall context of political violence in this country than the media mavens who ritually disdain him.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.