Briefly, before he went wildly off-script on Tuesday at Trump Tower, we lived in a world where the 45th president of the United States had finally managed to condemn Nazis. And let’s ask ourselves: Did that make us feel any better? Did the sight of Donald J. Trump glumly reading off a teleprompter remarks obviously written by someone else convince anyone that he understood his earlier error? Did we all begin to feel that America and the world were in safe hands?
Well, no, of course not.
Nobody in their right mind was any happier. Even before he confirmed that he didn’t actually mean what he’d said, nobody could have believed that Trump genuinely meant what he’d said. Nor could anyone have believed that his stilted statement on Monday deterred or dismayed the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville this weekend.
If you don’t believe me, ask them. As Richard Spencer, the carefully coiffed leader of the “alt-right” said in response, “It sounded so hollow. … Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.“ Another white supremacist, Jared Taylor, pointed out that Trump’s comments “will not appease his enemies and they will not discourage his supporters.” Other white nationalists have said that they will only step up their rallies across the US Nothing changed.
So why, precisely, did everyone demand that Trump make these comments when it is and was patently obvious that he doesn’t mean them? When they will make no difference to those he is supposed to be condemning? And when they, further, allow Trump to claim that he has now done exactly what normal presidents would do, and “the #Fake News Media” still isn’t satisfied? All such a ritual does is convince his supporters that while he’s willing to reach out, nothing he can do will be free of criticism. In their minds, the pro forma statements serve merely to justify his subsequent outburst.
We in India have played out our version of this dark farce for three years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi climbed to power with a record blemished by years of pandering to Hindu nationalists. Emboldened by his victory, the hardest core of his supporters asserted themselves across India through intimidation and violence. Muslims were lynched; people born into lower castes were publicly beaten. The prime minister was pressed: Why would he not address this violence?
For days after one particularly horrific lynching, Modi declined to respond. And then, when he did, nobody was really satisfied. Like Trump’s real reaction, there was a strong element of “both-sides-ism” in his response. His subsequent condemnations of religiously inspired violence have also made little difference to either his supporters or his critics.
This is unsurprising; after all, Modi’s actions haven’t exactly supported his words. Recently, his government came out with strong new rules governing the sale and transport of cattle that were widely seen as providing cover to vigilantes seeking to target anyone associated with eating beef. He continues to patronize and elevate those associated with cow-related violence -- most recently choosing as the leader of India’s largest state a monk-turned-politician whose personal militia has long been associated with such intimidation. And the prime minister himself follows, on Twitter, Hindu nationalists who tweet out threats and distortions. Modi’s actions speak far louder than his tepid criticism of violence.
And so it is with Trump. You may demand he condemn Nazis and eventually he might, half-heartedly -- but nothing will change in the real world. Trump will continue to retweet white supremacist trolls. He will continue to listen to Steve Bannon, the dark lord of the alt-right. He will return to what he really feels the moment the teleprompter is turned off. And his White House’s policies will continue to be dog-whistles to the kind of people who marched and killed in Charlottesville.
So, once again, why demand that our leaders say the right thing? I may want to live in a country where my prime minister knows that cow vigilantes don’t deserve promotions. But I don’t. We all may want to live in a world in which the president of the US knows that white supremacy is, well, bad. But that is clearly not the world in which we live. Even if Aaron Sorkin starts writing Trump’s speeches, he isn’t going to turn into Jed Bartlet.
Everyone knows when Trump’s words mean something and when they mean nothing. On Tuesday, at Trump Tower, they meant something. On Monday, at the White House, they meant nothing. The day that Bannon is fired, that Trump unfollows and stops retweeting white nationalist trolls, that he gives up on his dumb wall -- perhaps then we can take any statements from him condemning Nazis seriously. Till then, stop asking him to make them.
By Mihir Sharma
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.