Last night, before a television audience of tens of millions of American voters and millions more around the world, Joe Biden delivered his acceptance speech as Democratic candidate for president. In that speech, he repeated the falsehood that is, by his own repeated assertion, the foundation of his entire campaign.
Vast swathes Americans—including innumerable editorialists, bloggers, op-ed writers, and talking heads—believe as an article of faith that, after the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, Pres. Trump asserted a moral equivalence between white nationalists and neo-Nazis, on the one hand, and those who were protesting against racism, on the other. It is no wonder people believe it; it has been so frequently asserted and so rarely contradicted. Nevertheless, it is demonstrably false to say that Pres. Trump asserted any such vicious moral equivalence, and the most prominent purveyor of that falsehood is Joe Biden.
In the video that launched his current campaign, Mr. Biden’s very first words are “Charlottesville, Virginia,” and he reveals that Donald Trump’s remark about “very fine people on both sides” was the reason he decided to join “a battle for the soul of this nation.”
He made precisely the same point in announcing his selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. In fact, he very pointedly noted that the announcement was being made on the third anniversary of the disturbances in Charlottesville. (The Biden/Harris video is here; the relevant portion of is from 11:52 to 14:10.)
And in his acceptance speech, he again deplored the president’s remark about “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, and again asserted that that remark was the ultimate motivation for his decision to run for president. (The video of the acceptance speech is here; the relevant portion is from 19:29 to 20:36.)
Here are the facts. In a post-Charlottesville press conference, Pres. Trump referred to “very fine people on both sides”; the video is here. What follows is a transcript (which begins at 10:45 and runs to 12:19 in the video) of part of that video. Please check this transcript for accuracy. (Two passages are in bold, solely for ease of reference.)
Reporter: The neo-Nazis started this thing; they showed up in Charlottesville to protest….
Trump: Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves down as neo-, and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group—excuse me, excuse me—I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from “Robert E. Lee” to another name.
Trump: No, George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down—excuse me—are we going to take down, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Cause he was a major slave-owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So, you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people—and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally—but you had many people in that group, other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay, and the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also you had some fine people, but you also had trouble-makers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You had a lot of bad, you had a lot of bad people in the other group, too.
Everyone knows that Donald Trump does not speak extemporaneously with perfect clarity. His off-the-cuff statements in particular are often difficult to follow. But here, any fair-minded person would understand that, when he refers to “very fine people on both sides,” Pres. Trump is referring to very fine people on both sides of the issue of whether to remove Robert E. Lee’s statue and name from a public park. This is obviously true because, precisely fifty-two (52) seconds after he refers to “very fine people,” he explicitly states “I’m not talking about neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” The only other people (besides neo-Nazis and white nationalists) he mentions are those who want to preserve Robert E. Lee’s name and statue. So, the “very fine people” must be among those latter people.
I don’t believe that demonstrating against the removal of Robert E. Lees’ statue and name from a park makes one a neo-Nazi or white nationalist. People in that demonstration can be, I think, fine people. That’s my opinion; you will have your own. But, if you agree with me, then the “battle for the soul of our nation” that Mr. Biden so solemnly invokes is a mirage: he is battling a non-existent adversary. That is not a solid foundation for a presidential campaign. Mr. Biden (or his advisers) ought to actually read a transcript of Pres. Trump’s remarks and reject a divisive narrative grounded on a falsehood.