“Racism is evil,” declared Donald Trump on Monday, “and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
OK, “declared” may be too strong a word for what we heard from the president. “Stated” is perhaps a better descriptor. “Read out” might be the most accurate of all. Trump made these “additional remarks” with great reluctance and only after two days of intense criticism from both the media and senior Republicans over his original remarks blaming “many sides” for the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The words were not his own: they were scripted by aides and delivered with the assistance of a teleprompter. The president reserved his personal, off-the-cuff ire on Monday for the black CEO of Merck, not for the white fascists of Virginia.
Much of the frenzied media coverage of what CNN dubbed “48 hours of turmoil for the Trump White House” has overlooked one rather crucial point: Trump doesn’t like being forced to denounce racism for the very simple reason that he himself is, and always has been, a racist.
Consider the first time the president’s name appeared on the front page of the New York Times, more than 40 years ago. “Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City,” read the headline of the A1 piece on Oct. 16, 1973, which pointed out how Richard Nixon’s Department of Justice had sued the Trump family’s real estate company in federal court over alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act.
“The government contended that Trump Management had refused to rent or negotiate rentals ‘because of race and color,’” the Times revealed. “It also charged that the company had required different rental terms and conditions because of race and that it had misrepresented to blacks that apartments were not available.” (Trump later settled with the government without accepting responsibility.)
Over the next four decades, Trump burnished his reputation as a bigot: he was accused of ordering “all the black [employees] off the floor” of his Atlantic City casinos during his visits; claimed “laziness is a trait in blacks” and “not anything they can control”; requested Jews “in yarmulkes” replace his black accountants; told Bryan Gumbel that “a well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market”; demanded the death penalty for a group of black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a jogger in Central Park (and, despite their later exoneration with the use of DNA evidence, has continued to insist they are guilty); suggested a Native American tribe “don’t look like Indians to me”; mocked Chinese and Japanese trade negotiators by doing an impression of them in broken English; described undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists”; compared Syrian refugees to “snakes”; defended two supporters who assaulted a homeless Latino man as “very passionate” people “who love this country”; pledged to ban a quarter of humanity from entering the United States; proposed a database to track American Muslims that he himself refused to distinguish from the Nazi registration of German Jews; implied Jewish donors “want to control” politicians and are all sly negotiators; heaped praise on the “amazing reputation” of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has blamed America’s problems on a “Jewish mafia”; referred to a black supporter at a campaign rally as “my African-American”; suggested the grieving Muslim mother of a slain U.S. army officer “maybe … wasn’t allowed” to speak in public about her son; accused an American-born Hispanic judge of being “a Mexican”; retweeted anti-Semitic and anti-black memes, white supremacists, and even a quote from Benito Mussolini; kept a book of Hitler’s collected speeches next to his bed; declined to condemn both David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan; and spent five years leading a “birther” movement that was bent on smearing and delegitimizing the first black president of the United States, who Trump also accused of being the founder of ISIS.
Oh and remember: we knew all of this before he was elected president of the United States of America. He was elected in spite of all this (yet another reminder that “not all Trump supporters are racist, but all of them decided that racism isn’t a deal-breaker”).
Some had hoped that Trump would be moderated by office; there was much talk of a presidential pivot. It was all utter nonsense and wishful thinking from lazy commentators who have found it difficult to cover, and call out, a president who regularly traffics in racially charged rhetoric while surrounding himself with an array of race-baiting advisers. Since entering the Oval Office, Trump has appointed Steve Bannon — former executive chairman of Breitbart News, which has stories tagged ‘Black Crime’ — as his White House chief strategist, and Jeff Sessions — who was once accused of calling a black official in Alabama a “nigger” — as his attorney general; he has claimed, without a shred of evidence, that millions of immigrants “voted illegally” for Hillary Clinton; and, perhaps most shocking of all, he has publicly and repeatedly belittled Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has claimed Native American heritage, as “Pocahontas.”
This is Racism 101 from a sitting U.S. president. And it is the stark and undeniable truth, and key context, that is missing from much of the coverage of the political fallout from Charlottesville. Journalists, opinion formers, members of Congress, and members of the public continue to treat Trump as they would any previous president — they expect their head of government to come out and condemn racism with passion, vigor, speed, and sincerity. But what do you do if the president is himself a long-standing purveyor of racism and xenophobia? What then? Do you still demand he condemn and castigate what is essentially his base? Do you continue to feign shock and outrage over his lack of shock and outrage?
Yes, the U.S. has had plenty of presidents in recent decades who have dog-whistled to racists and bigots, and even incited hate against minorities — think Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan and his “welfare queens,” George H.W. Bush and the Willie Horton ad, and the Clintons and their “super-predators” — but there has never been a modern president so personally steeped in racist prejudices, so unashamed to make bigoted remarks in public and with such a long and well-documented record of racial discrimination.
So can we stop playing this game where journalists demand Trump condemns people he agrees with and Trump then pretends to condemn them in the mildest of terms? I hate to say this, but it is worth paying attention to the leader of the Virginia KKK, who told a reporter in August 2016: “The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes, we believe in.”
So can we stop pretending that Trump isn’t Trump? That the presidency has changed him, or will change him? It hasn’t and it won’t. There will be no reset; no reboot; no pivot. This president may now be going through the motions of (belatedly) denouncing racism, with his scripted statements and vacuous tweets. But here’s the thing: why would you expect a lifelong racist to want to condemn or crack down on other racists? Why assume a person whose entire life and career has been defined by racially motivated prejudice and racial discrimination, by hostility toward immigrants, foreigners, and minorities, would suddenly be concerned by the rise of prejudice and discrimination on his watch? It is pure fantasy for politicians and pundits to suppose that Trump will ever think or behave as anything other than the bigot he has always been — and, in more recent years, as an apologist for other bigots, too.
We would do well to heed the words of those who have spent decades studying this bizarre president. “Donald is a 70-year-old man,” Trump biographer David Cay Johnston reminded me in the run-up to his inauguration in January. “I’m 67. I’m not going to change and neither is Donald.”