On Aug. 18, just two hours after Mitt Romney called President Donald Trump’s inflammatory response to the violence in Charlottesville an “inflection point of national consequence,” joining the chorus of CEOs, media figures and politicians left and right, the news media was on to something else.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was ousted.
Trump’s seven-month tenure has been an unending stream of presidential tweets, Drudge sirens and outraged responses, each moment obscuring whatever came before it.
But there are many reasons to believe that Romney is right — that Charlottesville was an “inflection point,” and that the reaction this time around is more than moving from one attention-getting story to the next. The furor over Trump’s response to the white nationalist-bred clash that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer has caused corporate chieftains, news anchors, entertainment figures and other politicians to call out the president and speak up, where in the past they may have stayed silent.
Their message, explicit or implicit, is that Trump has stoked the racial divide like no other recent president.
As the events unfolded in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, and it became clear that the images coming out of the protests were chilling and disturbing, Trump waited to give a statement. When he finally did, he said that “many sides” were responsible for the violence, failing to call out the anti-Semitic, white supremacist groups by name.
|Kyle Hilton for Variety|
After he tried to stem the criticism two days later by condemning the KKK and neo-Nazis, he reversed himself again at an Aug. 15 Q&A with reporters. Not only did he blame “both sides,” but he said there were “very fine people” among those at a march billed as an event for white nationalism.
James Murdoch, the CEO of 21st Century Fox, voiced his incredulity in a letter, writing that “there are no good Nazis.” He announced a donation of $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League. At the same time, Apple CEO Tim Cook also denounced Trump and pledged a $1 million donation to the ADL and another $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I disagree with the president and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights,” said Cook.
By week’s end the pressure to cut ties to Trump turned even to Cabinet members and advisers. Carl Icahn quit, although he cited concerns over potential business conflicts of interest. Even Yale classmates of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged him to resign. Mnuchin responded by defending the president.
So many people quit that Lady Gaga called it a “reverse ‘Apprentice.’”
Trump tried to make the debate not about white supremacy but rather the historic import of Confederate statues and monuments. Yet even that rationale only stirred further argument about the reasons that the statues were placed there in the first place — as symbols of the Jim Crow era.
News organizations have been especially challenged, not just to keep apace with the story but to go into greater depth.
“This isn’t going away,” said Ryan Kadro, the executive producer of “CBS This Morning.” “I think a lot of things that may have been hiding for a while are now out in the open, and I think this is the beginning of an important national conversation.” He added: “We also have to get at some of the issues of why this is happening, whether for economic or other reasons. We have to look at what are the reasons that are feeding it.”
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, “CBS This Morning” re-aired a segment called “Note to Self,” featuring Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights icon, and a segment that featured past presidents talking about racism. That was followed by a report from Charleston, where current pastor Eric Manning and members of the Emanuel AME Church, the site of deadly shootings by a white supremacist in 2015, reflected on Charlottesville.
“These are inherently, incredibly emotional stories,” Kadro said. “From a newsroom management perspective it is pointing people in the right direction. We are maybe showing them a story and a point of view they have not seen elsewhere.”
The Charlottesville violence almost immediately put newsrooms in the position of calling out white supremacists rather than using a euphemism, the “alt-right,” and being careful not to treat the story as a matter of equivalence. The Society of Professional Journalists even issued guidance on how and when to call out those who spew racism, and the balance that must be struck in covering them. “They and their news organization must be especially cautious not to inflate situations or make matters worse,” the SPJ’s Andrew Seaman wrote.
|“A lot of things that may have been hiding are now
out in the open.”
|Ryan Kadro, “CBS This Morning”|
After Trump’s press conference from Trump Tower, where he reaffirmed his contention that “both sides” were to blame for the violence, the stunned reaction from news anchors was followed later in the evening by that of late-night hosts. Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers have thrived in the Trump era as a source of humor and ratings, but this time was different. That was most reflected in the way that Jimmy Fallon responded on “The Tonight Show.”
Criticized for treating Trump as a source of fun and games during the campaign, Fallon last week gave an emotional monologue about Charlottesville and then, after Trump defended the protesters in his press conference, sharply quipped, “He can’t even get vacation right! Imagine coming back to the office: ‘Hey, how was your two-week break?’ ‘It was good. I defended Nazis. What’d you do?’”
The reaction from late night, though, was not much of a surprise, nor was the response in much of the entertainment industry. Trump’s troubles in securing acts for his inauguration was a signal that many in Hollywood were much more willing to join the “resistance” than score an invite to the White House. The remaining members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, holdovers from the Obama years, resigned in a memo in which the first letter of each paragraph spelled the word “Resist.”
“In Performance at the White House,” the public television series that was ubiquitous during the Obama years, has been dormant. It’s hard to see how, in the wake of Charlottesville, performers outside of those who already have publicly backed Trump would agree to the gig, at risk of a popular backlash.
An indicator was the announcement of the Kennedy Center Honors last month. Norman Lear, one of the honorees, said that he would skip a traditional White House reception in protest. After Charlottesville, another honoree, Carmen de Lavallade, said she would too, and others like Lionel Richie said they were considering a boycott. Finally, this past weekend, the White House announced that the president and first lady would not be attending the annual Kennedy Center Honors this year to allow the “artists to celebrate with any political distraction.”
Now there are questions about what happens to the National Medal of Arts, typically awarded by the president each fall. In the past, honors have been awarded to such figures as Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sally Field, Mel Brooks and Tony Kushner.
So what’s next?
Beau Willimon, who has used his Twitter platform to issue a “Declaration of Resistance” against Trump, last week proposed a march from Charlottesville to Washington. “112 miles. It would take one week. And we have hundreds of thousands to welcome their arrival,” he wrote.
Trump dismissed such criticism as a bias of the cultural elite, out of touch with the economic concerns of average Americans. The response to the resignation of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities members? He was going to dissolve the group, anyway, Trump claimed.
Before he was fired, Bannon relished the idea that Democrats would fixate on the furor over Charlottesville and embrace “identity politics” while Trump pushes his economic agenda.
Now that Bannon is out of the White House and back at Breitbart News, he’ll likely turn his attention not just to some of Trump’s New York advisers but to the news media and other cultural “elites.” He told Joshua Green of Bloomberg News that “if there’s any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a Trump critic from the right, wrote on Facebook: “Bizarrely, many on the center-left seem not to see that there is little [that] some on the President’s team would love more than to transform this into a fight about historical monuments.” Sasse said he gets asked in his home state whether the movement to remove statues will, as Trump suggested, lead to eliminating markers for Jefferson and Washington. That’s why Sasse thinks there needs to be a cautious, orderly approach to such decisions.
|President Trump said the violence in Charlottesville was attributable to “both sides.”
“Most of these folks voted for Trump, to be sure, but many quietly admit to being dissatisfied with his leadership,” Sasse wrote. “But they have ZERO uncertainty about a choice between a Trump who would defend statues of Washington and Jefferson, and a national media elite who they assume would not defend monuments to Washington and Jefferson. That’s the divide many here are seeing and hearing.”
Van Jones, CNN commentator and political activist, has been on a 14-city We Rise Tour, designed to highlight issues of climate change, criminal justice reform and equality. Among those who have taken part are Demi Lovato, Russell Simmons and DJ Khaled. After Charlottesville, the lineup changed, and he booked a Charlottesville counterdemonstrator who appeared onstage in Nashville.
“The key is not to retract; it is to expand the circle,” Jones said. “Our circle is big enough to include the pain in red states and blue states, and blue cities and red counties. And shame on us if we aren’t talking with just as much passion about real folks who are alive today who don’t have jobs, and whatever color, as we are talking about dead statues. We’ve got to talk about those statues, but we also have to talk about the future that we want to build together.”
It’s a “false complaint to say, ‘These Hollywood elites. Who cares what they think?’” Jones continued. “Well, obviously conservatives care. They keep complaining about it. It’s having some impact — because otherwise they wouldn’t be crying about it.”
Producer Eric Ortner, who is among those who resigned from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said the message is still to “pick up a clipboard and organize.”
“It sounds like it’s going to be a dodge to say that, but that’s going to be the way in the long run,” he said, pointing to the activity at the state and local level.
He also invoked a word from Obama’s campaigns: “Hope.”
That’s certainly a sentiment in Washington, where the daily news flow out of the White House produces a kind of whiplash.
Trump and his team segregate themselves in the Trump Hotel just down the street. But for those who are permanent Beltway fixtures, their presence is deeply felt in the form of unpredictability, the sense of never quite knowing what will happen in the next day or the next hour. The result, notes one prominent lobbyist: People are drinking more and eating more.
The coming months could mean more bombshells. Reporters are probing for any information on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and while there have been stories on a grand jury and FBI raid, leaks about what he has found out or where the investigation is headed have been scant.
The dysfunction has caused fallout. Industry representatives in Washington worry that Trump’s outbursts will prove to be distractions into the fall, jeopardizing the ability to push through significant tax reform. That would include something long on the entertainment industry’s wish list: a reduction in the corporate tax rate.
Even before Trump’s response to the white supremacist march, staffers on Capitol Hill had been jarred by his attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tasked with pushing through the White House agenda.
Trump, said one industry representative, risks being marginalized, even isolated. “Things have to quiet down,” the rep said.
Trump probably won’t suddenly fall silent. Judging by his list of detractors, and the response to Charlottesville, many others won’t either.