In February 2016, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, then-candidate Donald Trump was asked about receiving former KKK leader David Duke’s endorsement. His reply: “I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy and white supremacists.”

Trump’s answer was surprising, given that in 2000, he had refused the Reform Party nomination for president, precisely because the party included Duke. “David Duke just joined—a bigot, a racist, a problem,” Trump said then. “I mean, this is not exactly the people you want in your party.” Eventually, Trump did condemn Duke, but the impression was left, fair or not, that he was playing footsie with white racists.

After yesterday’s killing of a counter-protester at a “Unite the Right” white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, and the wounding of many more, President Trump needs to address white nationalism without any hemming and hawing for a middle ground. While some anti-fascist (antifa) counter-protesters came looking for a brawl, as did some white nationalists, the president has not been shy in the past about condemning the Left’s “professional protesters.” It’s time for him to turn his rhetorical fire on the racist-armband crowd that claims to speak in his name. (Similar disavowals would be welcome on the Left, too, when antifa, Black Lives Matter, or other groups or individuals engage in violence.)

The White House’s clarification that Trump’s remarks Saturday condemning bigotry, violence, and hatred obviously included the KKK and white supremacists was a welcome step forward in addressing the problem—but Trump needs to speak to these issues personally and directly. They have hovered over his campaign and presidency.

Tackling this issue is not without danger for Trump. Politically, he risks alienating the small group of his voters who sympathize with the Alt-Right and its outsize claims of victimization. But even setting that aside, given that so many wrongly associate Trump with white nationalism, any attempt at addressing the growing problem of overt racism can come off as saying, “I’m not a racist”—and when you say that, you’re already losing.

These pitfalls notwithstanding, the president must now find the courage to talk about white nationalism head-on—not as one of many ills in the American psyche, but as a specific and deadly threat to law and order and to American ideals. The hatred that drove Alex Fields, Jr. to drive a car into a crowd of human beings has a name. Trump has rightly demanded that we call “radical Islamic terror” by its name. By the same token, though the jihadi threat is much larger and more deadly, we must demand that he call “White Nationalist Terror” by its name.

Many people on the Left will reject anything that the president says. So be it; that’s not a good enough reason not to speak up. Sometimes great men create events; sometimes events create great men. For Trump, the opportunity to be great stands before him: a chance to live up to his promise to unite the country.

The racial divisiveness permeating every aspect of American society today, from politics to sports to entertainment—much of it driven by the Left—has created a target-rich environment for those who preach white nationalism. Disenchanted young white men who feel that they are blamed for all of society’s woes (and they often are) are too easily seduced by those who whisper, “what about your rights?” For many of these young men, Donald Trump is a hero. This puts him in a unique position to appeal to them to turn away from a path of hatred and toward the colorblind ideal of equality. But doing so will require moral clarity.

Trump need not embrace the Left’s extreme positions: that America is inherently racist, that white privilege is the prime factor that accounts for socio-economic success, or that the government should give citizens preferential treatment based on their skin color. But he does need to call out those marginal figures, including David Duke, who claim to be on his side while engaging in hideous bigotry that should have been left behind in the last century.

Trump must make it powerfully and explicitly clear that American society has no place for white nationalism. He can no longer claim not to know what it is, or refuse to discuss it. A 32-year-old woman is dead because of it. If we cannot heal the divides in our nation, more will perish. Now is the time for the president to begin that healing by stating firmly that white supremacy is an evil to be purged.

The president’s advisers and surrogates often insist that Trump is the greatest political communicator of their lifetimes. Here is a dramatic opportunity to prove it.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next