The president may or may not hold a media event after returning to Washington today. He may or may not use his Twitter account to say the sort of words most Republicans are begging him to say about the racist provocateurs who strutted their lethal stuff in Charlottesville on Saturday, and who are planning an assortment of additional events next weekend to exploit the brouhaha over Google’s diversity policies. This morning, Trump’s only apparent expression of interest in the Charlottesville story was to blast the CEO of Merck for resigning from the president’s American Manufacturing Council to protest the White House’s moral myopia over the violence.
But if Trump wanted to put this controversy behind him, and more generally, to address the long-term issue of his relationship with white supremacists, there’s a model available to him. Back in 1965, when conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. was running for mayor of New York, he was asked during a candidate’s debate about racist supporters, and replied:
In case such a person does exist, I want to say something to him: “Look, buster, I don’t want your vote. You go off to the fever swamps and get yourself your own candidate, because I’m not your man.”
This statement didn’t allay all concerns about Buckley’s and American conservatives’ willingness to oppose civil-rights laws and support candidates (like Barry Goldwater) whom racists also avidly supported. And my colleague Eric Levitz is right in saying that words alone won’t atone for many years of GOP efforts to encourage and exploit white backlash to minority progress. For Trump, a flat disavow of white supremacists now will not erase the effects of a campaign that sought to capitalize on white resentment.
But words matter, too. And Buckley’s rebuke stands as a pretty good example of how politicians can stop being coy about despicable people in their ranks. Trump should emulate it if he ever gets around to addressing the nasty racists who adore him.