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I think there is blame on both sides. You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” said President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville.

On August 11th, alt-right, white nationalist, neo-Nazi, and neo-Confederate activists came together in a “Unite the Right” rally. Organized by white nationalist blogger Jason Kessler, the rally aimed to resist the city council’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate leader General Robert E. Lee. Conflict with opponents, which included members of the alt-left, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa (anti-fascist) movements, led to unexpected violence.

James Alex Fields, Jr., an alleged neo-Nazi sympathizer, drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, causing the death of Heather Heyer and injuring at least a dozen others. Two days later, Trump released a statement calling out bigotry but proceeded to describe the counter-protesters as “very, very violent.” His response to the events in Charlottesville condoned the systematic oppression of people of color, promoted a racist double standard, and legitimized white nationalism and neo-Nazism.

When Trump defended those who protested the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue, he normalized and excused their violence and hatred. He said of the aggressors, “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”

In claiming that these protesters were not white supremacists, Trump denied the true motives behind their actions. Indeed, Lee symbolizes a dark time in U.S. history when many Americans fought to preserve slavery, upholding a racist hierarchy still present today. Instead of acknowledging the injustices of this period, Trump glorified them, lamenting “the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” He eulogized a racist past and overlooked a racist present.

Although Trump claimed to decry the hatred of the alt-right, his failure to swiftly and forcefully condemn the Unite the Right ralliers indicates his tacit support of their actions. He was quick to berate his dissenters—particularly people of color, such as Kenneth Frazier, who resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council after Trump’s remarks. Frazier, the CEO of Merck & Co and the second African-American man ever to lead a major pharmaceutical company, said of his decision, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”   

While Trump neglected to address the violence of his supporters, his counterparts on the political left, in contrast, have called out the radicals within the leftist Antifa movement. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Our democracy has no room for inciting violence or endangering the public, no matter the ideology of those who commit such acts.” Indeed, the public must be able to count on their leaders to unequivocally reject violence, regardless of the race or political leanings of those who commit it.

Furthermore, Trump’s response puts white supremacists and their opponents on the same moral plane. “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he asked, blaming “many sides.”

The counter-protesters did not carry “citronella-filled tiki torches.” They did not use terror to spread their beliefs. They did not advocate the supremacy of one race over another. When Trump compared a racist agenda to efforts for equality, he—intentionally or not—endorsed white nationalism. His initial silence and reluctance to identify the movement as “repugnant” empowered the alt-right and their views.

The neo-Nazi news website The Daily Stormer said of the President’s reaction, “When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.” In addition, white nationalist activity has escalated. Matthew Heimbach, a leader in the group, said, “We’re going to be more active than ever before.” Trump’s statements have only emboldened the alt-right and their platform, further exacerbating race relations. He is complicit in the spread of racist ideologies.

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Trump’s comments are not only unpresidential but alienating. When the nation looked to its leader to heal, he further aggravated deteriorating race relations in America. When he had the opportunity to unite, he divided.