To watch the president of the United States prevaricate and dissemble in the face of white supremacist terror is and hopefully always will be shocking. But it's hardly surprising. Donald Trump's march to the Oval Office began with the charge that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya, he catapulted to the top of the Republican pack with the charge that Mexican immigrants are predominantly rapists and murderers, and along the way he managed to espouse the view that a federal judge should be disqualified from a case on the basis of ethnicity.
Trump embraces a politics of racial conflict because it works for him.
As Bloomberg's Joshua Green recounts in his new book Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, candidate Trump shrugged off media and political attention to his dalliances with the unsavory racist elements of the alt-right. "We polled the race stuff and it doesn't matter," Bannon told Green in September; "it doesn't move anyone who isn't already in [Clinton's] camp."
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The fundamental issue is that the United States contains very few committed and vocal white supremacists (turnout for the Virginia rally was dwarfed by counterprotests nationwide). But it does contain an awful lot of white people. To the extent that politics is seen as a crude zero-sum struggle between racial groups, most of them are going to back the side they perceive as supporting the interests of white people.
Yet the reality is that while Trump is inflicting tangible disproportionate harm to racial minorities across the country, he's not doing anything substantive to advance the interests of his typical white supporter either. He's loudly embraced a brand of toxic racial politics while quietly creating a narrow winner's circle of C-suite executive and inheritors of vast fortunes. And it's the loyalty of the business class, not of neo-Nazi street brawlers, that ultimately ensures Trump's position of power and is in turn receiving its due rewards.