One question hanging over Donald Trump’s candidacy is whether it represents the terrifying rise of an American authoritarianism, or a colossal prank Trump is playing on his supporters. Evidence for both hypotheses can be found in Trump’s remarks this morning, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, refusing to disavow support from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan:
Trump: Well just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay, I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know, I don’t know. Did he endorse me, or what’s going on, because, you know I know nothing about David Duke, I know nothing about white supremacists. So you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.
Tapper: But I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is, even if you don’t know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you. Would you just say, unequivocally, that you condemn them and you don’t want their support?
Trump: Well I have to look at the group. I don’t know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I’d have to look. If you would send me a list of groups, I will do research on them, and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong. But you may have groups in there that are totally fine and that would be unfair, so give me a list of the groups and I’ll let you know. … Honestly I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him.
Trump, of course, is lying when he claims to be unaware of David Duke. Duke is a famous figure whose ability to compete for statewide election in Louisiana drew national attention 25 years ago. Trump himself has expressed familiarity with (and disavowed) Duke in the past. The political logic of Trump’s evasiveness is bizarre. Yes, Republican voters respond to dog-whistle racism. And yes, racial resentment is deeply embedded in the popular appeal of conservative politics. But Republicans are overwhelmingly convinced of their own racial innocence. There is no reason to believe they wish to tolerate open association with the KKK.
More interesting is Trump’s language. Four times in the interview, he repeats the phrase “I know nothing.” That is the exact wording used by 19th-century nativists. The “Know-Nothing Party” is sometimes misremembered in the popular imagination today as signifying ignorance. In fact, the phrase was used by nativists who belonged to secret societies pledged to support only native-born Protestants for public office. When questioned about the groups, members were instructed to state “I know nothing.” It is striking to see modern nativist Donald Trump repeat this precise formulation as an answer to an analogous question (his subterranean support from a politically radioactive secret society).
Possibly Trump is making a clever historical reference that he will later explain when he reveals that his entire political profile from 2011 through 2016 was a form of guerrilla theater designed to smoke out the widespread appeal of Republican racism. Or else, more likely, he is even stupider than anybody previously believed.