On Wednesday, Donald Trump’s former lawyer informed Congress that the president believes black people are innately less intelligent and capable of self-rule than white people are. In his sworn testimony, Michael Cohen told the House Oversight Committee:
Mr. Trump is a racist … He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a “shithole.” This was when Barack Obama was President of the United States.
While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way.
And, he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.
Republican congressman Mark Meadows couldn’t believe his ears. The notion that Donald Trump — of all people — could harbor prejudicial views about minorities struck the Freedom Caucus chair as plainly impossible. So, when Meadows got his chance to cross-examine the witness, he trotted out living proof that the president’s racial views are impeccably egalitarian: a dark-skinned woman who had performed labor for Trump’s benefit.
Specifically, Meadows presented Lynne Patton, a former party planner for the Trump Organization and current Housing and Urban Development official. “You made some very demeaning comments about the president that Ms. Patton doesn’t agree with,” Meadows told Cohen. “She says, as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, that there is no way she would work for an individual who was racist. How do you reconcile the two of those?
“As neither should I, as the son of a Holocaust survivor,” Cohen replied, suggesting that human beings in a capitalist society often agree to work for people whose views they find abhorrent. Cohen then advised Meadows to ask how many African-Americans currently work at the Trump Organization.
“The answer is zero,” Cohen said.
Given the weakness of the GOP’s rebuttal, it seems to safe to say that Cohen’s shocking revelations will finally put to rest the long-running debate over whether our president is a bigot. Whoops; sorry, a friend of mine who fell into a coma in May 2015, and just regained consciousness this morning, reached over my shoulders and typed that last sentence.
In truth, Cohen’s claims are neither shocking nor revelations. He related all of these private conversations, and more, in an interview with Vanity Fair last November. Which is to say: Two full months before 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper incredulously asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez how she could say that Trump was a racist.
But the idea that we can’t know whether Trump is a bigot without learning what he says in private — whether from Cohen, or the holy grail of the “N-word tape” — is itself offensive. After all, what Trump has said about Muslims in public is every bit as explicitly hateful as what he’s alleged to have said about African-Americans in private. The man called for banning all adherents of the Islamic faith from the United States, and repeatedly praised the concept of mass-murdering Muslim prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pig’s blood! He has said that Muslim immigrants have been “violently changing” Europe’s culture, and disseminated anti-Muslim propaganda videos over his Twitter account. There is no ambiguity here. The only reason why Trump’s remarks about Muslims aren’t treated as dispositive evidence of his bigotry is that Islamophobia is considered a legitimate viewpoint in today’s America.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — one of the administration’s putative “adults” — defamed the entire American Muslim community less than five years ago. Speaking from the House floor, the then-congressman falsely claimed that Muslim leaders had refused to condemn the Boston marathon bombing, and contended that this silence “made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts,” while also casting “doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.”
In the summer of 2014, two Israeli settlers kidnapped a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, beat him, and burned him alive, because they suspected that someone of the boy’s ethnicity had recently murdered three Jewish teenagers. The act was roundly condemned by the leadership of the American Jewish community. Imagine if Pompeo had given a speech, weeks later, in which he not only held all American rabbis responsible for this act of hideous violence — but falsely accused them of refusing to condemn the act, and suggested that this (mythical) silence cast “doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Jewish faith.” Would Pompeo have ever been appointed (let alone confirmed) to America’s top diplomatic post? Of course not. Anti-Semitism is verboten in our culture. Islamophobia isn’t.
Regardless, Trump remarks about Mexican and Central American immigrants have also tipped over the line into overt racism on multiple occasions. He has likened immigrants to vermin that “infest” our country, and repeatedly suggested that a significant percentage of the Mexican-American community consists of people so violent and awful, the Mexican government deliberately expelled them into the United States. He has said the same about every American who immigrated to this country through the diversity visa lottery. And while he has been somewhat less overt (in public) with his anti-black racism, the mogul established himself in conservative politics by propagating a conspiracy theory about how the first black president wasn’t really an American.
Cataloguing all of the president’s “racially tinged” comments would be a Sisyphean task. The point is that Cohen’s testimony tells us nothing that we weren’t already pretending not to know. No revelation can settle the “debate” over whether our president is a racist, because there are some objective truths that the conventions of “objective” journalism simply can’t abide. It is not acceptable for a person to be “a racist” in contemporary American discourse. Racists are, by definition, deserving of contempt and stigmatization. But CNN and the New York Times cannot consistently (i.e. day in and day out) treat the leader of the Republican Party as a figure worthy of scorn, and retain their claim to neutrality. Thus, their options are either to acknowledge the fact that Trump is a racist — but remain neutral on the question of whether there’s anything wrong with that — or pretend that there is some ambiguity about whether the Oval Office is occupied by a racist, who is using the state’s monopoly on violence to advance racist ends.
Understandably, they have chosen to play dumb. And nothing Cohen said Wednesday will cause them to wise up.