Rewriting history as a hoax
Efforts to undermine objective reality run deep on the right.
This is the second installment in a two-part series. Part one details the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and then-President Donald Trump’s multiple attempts to respond to it. This part will deal with the right-wing attempt to rewrite this history. If you enjoy or appreciate my work, please consider becoming a subscriber. Thanks!
In the previous installment of this series, I went through former President Donald Trump’s three attempts to address the August 2017 right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Va.
In it, I used transcripts and videos to make the following case:
In his first attempt at responding to the Unite the Right rally (August 12, 2017), Trump said there was blame “on many sides.”
Trump’s August 12 comments were condemned by other Republicans for trying to spread the blame around when the blame belonged specifically to the neo-Nazis and white nationalists who organized the event.
Trump’s non-specific condemnation of “hate” was viewed as a win by prominent white nationalists who believed he was referring to “Antifa.”
He tried to address the topic again two days later in a prepared speech that did a slightly better job of placing blame.
On August 15, when asked why it took him two full days to condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists by name, all hell broke loose, and Trump started again ranting about there being blame “on both sides,” with emphasis on what he called the “alt-left.”
During those comments, Trump said that not all attendees of the rally, which was organized by neo-Nazis and white nationalists, were bad people. In fact, there were “some very fine people” at that rally, specifically “the night before,” (this was the tiki torch march) on the side of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis, but not necessarily people who self-identify themselves as white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
This is simple stuff. It’s a factual accounting of what happened, and up until about 2019, this wasn’t really up for debate. This is just… what happened.
Here’s a series of tweets posted by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) immediately after Trump’s August 15 comments:
And here’s a tweet from the Anti-Defamation League that condemned Trump’s comments and attempt to treat this as a “both sides” issue:
And here’s a tweet from the NAACP that made that same point:
In 2022, accepting this reality is seen as a dealbreaker in GOP circles.
Go to Twitter and do a search for “Charlottesville hoax” or “very fine people hoax” (or just click that link). Pretty grim, right? Several times a day, people on Twitter are citing the “Charlottesville hoax” as “evidence” that [insert whichever mainstream news outlet here] is “fake news.” Some explain it by saying, “No, no, you see, Trump wasn’t referring to Nazis! He specifically said he wasn’t referring to Nazis!” and others will claim that the “fine people” he referred to were actually just people who disagreed with the city of Charlottesville about its statues but weren’t necessarily in attendance.
But that’s a lot of baloney. The primary criticism of Trump’s comments throughout these three attempts at addressing the issue was that he insisted on blaming “both sides” or “many sides” for the violence. The fact that he claimed that there were “very fine people” on the side of the neo-Nazis (who just happened to go to a neo-Nazi rally to support the neo-Nazis’ cause but didn’t consider themselves neo-Nazis) was its own separate outrage. But these were things that happened, and no, they weren’t “hoaxes.”
Let’s look at how the right’s attempt to rewrite history took shape.
Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip and a right-wing conspiracy theorist, has been one of the loudest (but certainly not one of the only) voices trying to rewrite the history of Trump’s response to Charlottesville. Let’s look at his progression:
In August 2017, Adams not only denounced Trump’s Charlottesville remarks but went so far as to angrily push back when people suggested otherwise. The closest thing to a defense of Trump in those early days was a blog post asking whether it’s actually important for the White House to provide “moral leadership.” In that blog, he referred to Trump’s comments as “morally ambiguous.”
“When critics of President Trump say he did not provide moral leadership on Charlottesville, I agree,” Adams wrote in that August 19 blog post. “His initial statement was tone deaf and politically radioactive. But ask yourself who needed moral clarity on Nazis. You don’t need a leader to take you where you already are.”
But by February 2018, Adams had shifted, publishing a post calling it “fake news” that Trump “referred to a bunch of racists with tiki torches in Charlottesville as ‘fine people.’” (Keep in mind that Trump specifically said that he was referring to the people who were there “the night before” when he said “very fine people;” this was the tiki torch rally, so yes, that’s specifically who he was referring to.)
“Amazingly, the anti-Trump media successfully persuaded half the public in this country that President Trump intentionally and publicly took sides with racists who have intense hatred for his family and close advisors,” wrote Adams, referring to the fact that Trump’s daughter Ivanka had converted to Judaism, as though that somehow meant he couldn’t possibly be antisemitic. “President Trump clarified soon after his first statement on Charlottesville that he disavowed the racists. But the haters didn’t believe it. They were locked in their hallucination bubble.”
Jake Tapper @jaketapperHow about on the “very fine people” marching in Charlottesville? No disagreement there, @netanyahu? https://t.co/ySUwsQfNIS
From that point on, Adams was committed to his belief that not only had Trump not called attendees of a white nationalist rally organized by neo-Nazis “very fine people,” but that Trump was actually only referring to there being “fine people” on “both sides” of the debate over what to do about Confederate monuments. Now, of course, keep in mind that Trump made clear that he was referring to attendees of the tiki torch rally “the night before” the Unite the Right rally when he said “very fine people.” Adams had invented a fiction, and he was committed to it.
I don’t believe that Adams is as stupid as he pretends to be. “But he has Jewish relatives!” is such a nonsense argument to defend Trump here, and Adams knows it. Just as sexists can be married to women and racists have no problem deploying “But I have a Black friend!” in defense of their racism, antisemites can have a Jewish friend or relative while still being extremely antisemitic.1 Donald Trump is evidence of this.
Eventually, the broader right started to buy into this.
Adams’s journey is far from unique. Immediately after Trump’s statements, it was tough finding Republicans to defend his statement… but that would change over time.
Immediately after Trump’s remarks, CNN reached out to all 52 Republican Senators for comment. Zero responded. The same thing happened when Fox News host Shepard Smith reached out to them. The day after his comments, Fox News conservative guest Gianno Caldwell broke down into tears over Trump’s words.
“I come today with a very heavy heart,” Caldwell said. “Last night I couldn’t sleep at all because President Trump, our president, has literally betrayed the conscience of our country,” later adding that Trump “failed us.”
In an interview with the Washington Post, Caldwell said, “To hear tone and tenor, to hear him pacify these white supremacists and general racists — I was completely disgusted. I was shaken.” (He was later hired by Fox News, announced that he was still a Republican, and now also hosts a podcast where he presents himself as “the sworn enemy of PC culture,” where he gave a super friendly interview to Trump daughter-in-law Lara Trump in 2020.)
The issue with Trump’s comments was never just that he said that there were “very fine people” on both sides in attendance at the Unite the Right rally. It was the fact that Trump repeatedly claimed there was “blame on both sides.” That simply was not true, and it was exactly the kind of thing Republicans would have exploded into a rage over if done by a Democrat. A neo-Nazi murdered someone, but Trump blamed “both sides.” Sick.
By 2019, Trump and his allies in right-wing media had shifted into full whitewash mode, loudly proclaiming that the controversy over Trump’s comments was a “hoax.” Breitbart was on the case, as was Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller (Unite the Right rally organizer and “white civil rights” activist Jason Kessler wrote for the Daily Caller in 2017 before trying to erase his work as though he was never there).
The issue was reignited in April 2019 when Joe Biden announced his run for presidency with a video focused on Charlottesville. Here’s the relevant section:
“Charlottesville is also home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years. It was there on August of 2017 we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open. Their crazed faces, illuminated by torches, veins bulging and bearing the fangs of racism. Chanting the same antisemitic bile heard across Europe in the thirties. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans. And a violent clash ensued. And a brave young woman lost her life.
And that’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides? With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
Though the Daily Caller claimed that Biden’s launch video was built on a “lie about Trump and Charlottesville,” nothing he said in that video was false.
“Central to Biden’s video was the theme of fighting against a culture of white supremacy — and the lie that Trump had called white supremacists ‘very fine people’ following the violent rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago,” wrote Virginia Kruta at the Daily Caller.
A month earlier, right-wing commentator and then-CNN employee Steve Cortes published a piece at the right-wing Real Clear Politics website2 and later in a video for PragerU about "what really happened in Charlottesville.” The premise of both the piece and the video was that “the media reported that President Trump described neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people,’” and Cortes set out to debunk that.
Except, here’s the thing: nowhere in PragerU’s video or Cortes’s RCP article does he link to an actual news outlet reporting that Trump “described neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people.’” That’s because the news coverage of the event did no such thing. Sure, you can find individual people saying that Trump referred to Nazis3 as “very fine people,” and you’ll certainly find people who think it was offensive to refer to attendees at a rally organized by neo-Nazis and white nationalists as “very fine people.” None of this makes what Trump said a “hoax.”
In fact, as YouTuber Shaun pointed out in his video, “How PragerU Lies to You: Charlottesville,” “every single news organization that PragerU names as having participated in the so-called Charlottesville lie reported exactly what PragerU claims they didn’t. They all made clear in their reporting following the press conference that Trump distinguished between the groups of protesters.” (That quote is from about 6 minutes into the video, and follows a point by point debunking of the idea that, as PragerU put it, “ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the others spread a malicious lie that has poisoned our national dialogue.” Links to the news stories reporting what PragerU pretended they didn’t can be found in the description section of Shaun’s video).
On August 18, 2020, Trump’s presidential campaign issued a “Fact Check” on his 2017 remarks.
Here’s how it began:
Democrats and many in the media love to repeat the false claim that President Trump praised white supremacists in Charlottesville. Joe Biden even launched his campaign on this entirely fake news.
As CNN's Jake Tapper has said, President Trump did not call neo-Nazis or white supremacists "very fine people."
Trump then goes on to selectively (and deceptively) quote Tapper:
Jake Tapper: "Elsewhere in those remarks the President did condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists. So he's not saying that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists are very fine people"
That quote was from an April 2019 episode of The Lead with Jake Tapper. Here’s the full quote, which Trump’s campaign conveniently trimmed:
“Elsewhere in those remarks, the president did condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists. So he’s not saying that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists are ‘very fine people,’ but he is saying that people protesting alongside those neo-Nazis and white supremacists are ‘very fine people.’ Who are they?”
Adding a bit more irony to it all, Tapper’s next line, following comment from Washington Post reporter Seung Min Kim, was this:
“There’s this big effort by Trump supporters to pretend that the president didn’t say what he said, to call this all a hoax. Again, he didn’t refer to Nazis as ‘very fine people;’ he referred to the people protesting with the Nazis, and I don’t know who are the good people there. Friday night was the ‘Jews will not replace us.’ Saturday, somebody was killed. At what point were there good people there?”
Amazingly, this is all in a clip that was archived by the Daily Caller in part of the very effort to whitewash Trump’s remarks that Tapper referred to during the segment.
A year later on Twitter, Tapper asked a pro-Trump PAC to stop taking his quote out of context.
America First @AmericaFirstPACAs CNN’s @jaketapper has said, POTUS did not call neo-Nazis or white supremacists very fine people: "Elsewhere in those remarks the President did condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists. So he’s not saying that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists are very fine people.”
The final (bonus) installment of this series will be for paid subscribers and will deal with our broader understanding of reality.
I’m hoping to have that out next week. It’s the piece I believe will really tie this all together. This isn’t just about Charlottesville. No, this is about the very idea of objective reality and what happens when bad actors decide that no amount of footage or transcripts can convince people that the political candidate they support did wrong. It’s destructive, and it’s a force I wish news organizations would tackle head-on. But that’s a piece for another day. For now, I’d just like to say thank you for reading all of this. Please let me know what you think in the comments.
For instance, in former Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino President John O’Donnell’s 1991 book Trumped, he wrote that Trump once went on a rant about “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money.” In 1997, Trump was asked about this, and said, “The stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true.” Years later, Trump would deny it.
In 2015, Trump leaned hard into antisemitic stereotypes while speaking to a group of Jewish Republicans. He said that the people in the audience wouldn’t support him because “I don’t want any of your money,” and talked about how he was “a negotiator, like you folks.” In 2019, Trump said that Jews who vote for Democrats are “very disloyal to Israel” (the idea that Jewish American citizens have a dual-loyalty to the U.S. and Israel is an antisemitic stereotype in itself). During another speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump referred to Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister,” again suggesting that American Jews have a loyalty to a foreign country.
RCP gets treated like a normal politics site because it puts out a fairly decent poll tracker, but its editorial side is just right-wing stuff.
Yes, everyone knows that Trump said “I’m not referring to neo-Nazis,” but they disagree with Trump’s premise that you could be a “very fine person” and attend a neo-Nazi rally, no matter what you pretend it was actually about.