Last week, I described how the tensions between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans had become increasingly visible, and explained why this conflict was likely to get even worse in the weeks to come. But that was before this weekend's events in Charlottesville, which seem to have further widened the divide between the two. Trump's initial refusal to specifically denounce racist groups and hold them responsible for the disorder and violence that occurred in Virginia—he briefly gave a more forceful condemnation Monday afternoon after two days of pressure—not only contrasted strikingly with the public statements made by other Republican elected officials, but also provoked obliquely critical comments from some of them.
"Mr. President — we must call evil by its name," wrote Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida agreed that it was "very important for the nation to hear [the president] describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists." Republicans were described as "privately wincing" and complaining that Trump had "botched" his response.
Aside from being sincerely horrified that the president of the United States did not view organized bigotry as an appropriate target for his otherwise sharp tongue, Trump's critics have focused on what they see as the political malpractice of passing up a chance to immediately and vehemently reject the belief system of a small and widely-loathed group of extremists. Fellow Republican politicians indeed have good reason to be seriously concerned about the flawed instincts of the president, and to wonder if their party has become hitched to the whims of a uniquely stubborn and tone-deaf figure.
But Trump's defective political antennae do not represent the biggest danger to the GOP. If the worst Republican nightmare comes true, Charlottesville is just the beginning of an emboldened white supremacist movement descending on one part of America after another. It can be difficult to predict how the typical voter will respond to the rise of civil unrest, but these are not Black Lives Matter activists scuffling with police; these are not liberals with rainbow flags and feline hats blocking traffic or protesting at airports. The pictures from Virginia are of gun-toting crackpots with torches, swastika tattoos, and ugly frog logos invading a town to beat up and run over the sons and daughters of the American middle class—and many who are far from the political left have nonetheless reacted to these developments with a reflexive sense of utter revulsion.
Republicans desperately want Trump to tell the white-power goons to get lost forever. Extremists and violent actors are a political fact of life, but it's tougher to escape association with them when many are wearing red baseball caps openly proclaiming their identification with the leader of one's own party. Worryingly, even Trump's more strongly-worded, and more positively-reviewed, statement today did not specifically reject the support he has personally received and continues to receive from the racist fringe. The president's manner also strongly suggests that he makes such public pronouncements reluctantly out of political necessity rather than enthusiastically out of personal conviction—which may do little to convince the leaders of these movements that he really wants them to cease their efforts.
If Charlottesville becomes a model replicated elsewhere rather than a single tragic departure, true panic will set in among Republican ranks. Trump has already given his party a lot of trouble during his brief time in office. But if the next two elections become a national referendum on whether it's a good thing that the Nazis and the Klan are back in the picture, few Republicans will be optimistic about their chances.