Theories abound about why President Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted that “many sides” are to blame for the white supremacist-fueled violence in Virginia over the weekend.
Some suggested the president does not want to alienate whites who voted for him out of a sense of racial grievance. Others said he was offering his white nationalist supporters a wink and a nod. Yet another concluded advisers like Stephen Bannon must be influencing Trump.
But there is an alternate explanation, one that is espoused by many on the right and repeated on an almost daily basis in the conservative news media that consumes so much of the president’s attention and energy.
In this version of events, a violent and dangerous left fringe is ignored by news media that would rather elevate far-right extremism as the nation’s more urgent threat. This view of the left as unhinged and anarchistic has become popular with some Republicans who insist that Democrats still refuse to accept Trump. And it stokes the powerful emotions behind perceptions of excessive political correctness and media bias.
First by hesitating to attribute the brutality to any one element of the protests, and again on Tuesday by doubling down on his contention that “there is blame on both sides,” Trump seems to have concluded what many other conservatives did about the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia: As tragic as it was, it was incited by a small, unrepresentative group of bigots purporting to speak for the right whose antics would be exhaustively covered in the news.
“They think there were 300 or so racists who showed up to a rally, and who got exactly what they wanted: Violence, and violence in a way that inspires the nation’s elite to double down on iconoclasm in a way they hope grows their movement,” said Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist, an online magazine.
A headline on The Federalist on Monday summed up that sentiment: “White Supremacists Were Not the Only Thugs Tearing Up Charlottesville.”
A site called The Patriot Post created a meme called “They Lie” using two juxtaposed photographs. The first was a man looking at Trump waving to a sea of cheering fans; the second was a picture of that same man wearing glasses covered in the CNN logo, but seeing instead a group of Hitler Youth saluting their leader.
Townhall.com offered another provocative take: “How the Liberal Media Created Charlottesville.”
Trump and conservatives have pointed to several recent episodes as evidence of the left gone mad. They include the comedian Kathy Griffin’s posing for a picture with a fake severed Trump head, and a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that featured a Trump-like actor as the emperor who is fatally stabbed onstage.
Some seized on the shooting that seriously injured Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., at a congressional baseball team practice in June as further proof. One recent web video from the National Rifle Association accused liberals of attempting to “bully and terrorize the law abiding” as it implored Americans to “fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”
But the tragedy in Charlottesville — specifically, the death of a young woman at the hands of a Nazi sympathizer who the authorities said ran her down with his car — undercut the notion that the black-masked radical leftists who smash windows and hurl firebombs are an equal menace.
Nor is it backed up by data on political violence. Of at least 372 murders that were committed by domestic extremists between 2007 and 2016, according to a study by the Anti-Defamation League, 74 percent were committed by right-wing extremists. Muslim extremists were responsible for 24 percent of those killings, and the small remainder were committed by left-wing extremists, the study concluded.
Noah Rothman, an editor for Commentary Magazine, a conservative opinion journal, said the emphasis for many conservatives is not on statistics that indicate who is the more violent offender. Rather, he said, the point is about the general tenor of political debate, which people like him believe is weighted against them.
“You don’t have a ton of reporters banging on the doors of Democrats asking them to denounce Antifa,” he said, referring to the militant Marxist-inspired group that rioted at Trump’s inauguration and often shows up looking for confrontation at sites where conservative writers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are scheduled to speak.
“We’re comparing a body count, and that to me seems like it’s the wrong place to start,” Rothman added. “The place to start is when we have violence in the streets. We need to have a conversation about where we are as a country.”
Trump is no mere bit player in the discussion of political violence. At various times, he has offered to pay the legal bills of supporters who get in brawls at his events and stated, without offering any proof, that paid agitators were responsible for protests against him.
Trump’s sympathizers generally amplify these claims, including some who did after Charlottesville. Alex Jones, the right-wing provocateur and Sandy Hook massacre denier whom Trump once personally called to thank for his support, said people who protested the white supremacists over the weekend were probably actors.
In an internet broadcast on Saturday, Jones played down the significance of the violence, saying it was likely staged by “Democratic Party activists” who are looking to “overdemonize” whites and “put chips on the shoulders of the so-called minorities.”
“Demographically, blacks are 12 times more likely to attack whites for no reason,” Jones went on, providing no evidence for his claim. “It’s a fact.”
He then recounted his own experience watching a Nazi rally he said was attended by Jews posing as Nazis, evident by their “curly hair, and you know, dark eyes.”
Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theory peddler, was gleeful as he posted on Twitter about the violence on Saturday. “Civil War is here!” he wrote.
Like others on the far right, he said the rhetoric on the left was to blame: “The left has preached hatred for decades. Those they hated began to hate them back. How is anyone surprised by this?”
Cernovich headlined a “Rally for Peace” in Washington after the Scalise shooting, a rally that quickly turned into a referendum on the left’s culpability in the crime. He also played a central role in the “Pizzagate” hoax that attempted to link Hillary Clinton to a child sex ring and has been praised by Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. as being worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.
There is also a new political term to describe the circular firing squad in which right and left have blamed the other for the country’s degenerating political debate — “whataboutism.”
Guy Benson, a conservative writer and an author of the book “End of Discussion,” which argues that the left has tried to shut down political debate by declaring certain topics off the table, said he sees a “whataboutism overreach” among some conservatives.
But on the other hand, he said, “Are we allowed to point out that left-wing violence is a problem and did probably contribute to what happened in Charlottesville and not be compared to Hitler?”
He said that conservatives would be better served by finding other ways to make points of media bias and political double standards.
“Round and round we go with this one-upsmanship of who’s worse,” Benson added, “and that’s a really terrible way to argue.”