politics chat

DI Politics Chat: The ‘N-word Tape’ Tape

President Donald Trump holds an African American History Month listening session attended by Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison Omarosa Manigault (L) and other officials in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump holds an African American History Month listening session attended by Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison Omarosa Manigault (L) and other officials in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo: Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images

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I’m your humble host and editor Ezekiel Kweku, and today I’m talking with three members of New York’s politics team — Jonathan Chait, Eric Levitz, and Ed Kilgore — about whether Trump said the “N-word” on tape, and if it should matter if he did.

Ezekiel: Today, Omarosa Manigault Newman released a tape of her and two other Trump staffers discussing the existence of a tape of Trump saying “the N-word” as if the tape exists. How likely do you think it is that such a recording is real?

Jon: At least 50-50? Maybe higher, but if you mean a tape we will see, 50-50 or lower.

Ed: Given his relentless, and presumably not just recent, resentment of “political correctness” and his habit of running his mouth in public and private, I’d say the odds of it existing are pretty high.

Eric: I’d guess high. The man is very racist and loves to be taped. Let’s not forget how his longtime butler liked to talk about African-Americans. “[W]ith the last breath I draw I will help rid this America of the scum infested in its government–and if that means dragging that ball less dick head from the white mosque and hanging his scrawny ass from the portico–count me in !!!!!”

Jon: Good pull. The butler. Nobody expected that guy.

Eric: Seems unlikely that he and Trump/Trump and other Mar-a-Lago guests never got similarly “colorful” on the subject of the first black president.

Jon: Very un-butlery language. Maybe in real life, butlers are nothing like in the movies.

Ezekiel:  He sounds like what Trump’s butler would sound like.

Ed: I’d also say that anyone prone to using the phrase “the blacks,” as Trump is, is going to say something more vivid in private, whether or not it’s the actual N-word. I say that from my elaborate experience with white racists back home in Georgia.

Ezekiel: Very true. And Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s inability to guarantee that Trump said “the N-word” on tape, especially given her usual willingness to dissemble on behalf of Trump, probably tells us something about the way he talks in private.

Jon: The man is a civil rights hero, he said so himself.

Ed: Maybe I’ll think about constructing a “Ten warning signs that you might say the N-word in private” list. They’d include questioning African-Americans’ IQs, opposing and exploiting African-American protests, defending confederate monuments and their champions, employing Corey Stewart, ranting about law and order, going exactly as far as is possible in specifically deploring other minority groups, bragging about relationships with black people in a patronizing way … I could go on and on.

Ezekiel: That’s a good segue to the next question, which is — given his record, would it matter whether there’s a tape of him saying the N-word? How much would it matter?

Ed: Knowing he said it would be more of a confirmation of racism than independent proof … or maybe you could call it adding insult to injury. It would make it a lot harder for people who are in denial about “racism” generally.

Jon: I think, given that politics is played between the 40s for the most part, a tape of him saying that would be catastrophically bad for him. The caveat means, of course, Hannity and Carlson would defend him. That said, it would be a disaster. A big part of conservative attitudes on racism is defining it in very narrow terms, but that would undeniably qualify as racism in their eyes. Losing, say, 10 percent of your support is catastrophic.

Eric: In the abstract, it matters whether the president of the United States uses racial slurs in private. In political terms, it will likely matter if a recording of him using it surfaces. But it shouldn’t really matter whether Trump uses the N-word in private, since his public remarks, taken collectively, amount to much stronger evidence of racial animus than a single recording of him using that word privately would; and his public racism is a far greater threat to vulnerable minority groups in the U.S.

To put a finer point on it: If Trump ordered DHS to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by Jews, held rallies with mothers whose kids were killed by Jews, repeatedly referred to Jewish immigrants as animals in public, and proposed banning all Jews from America during his primary campaign, I wouldn’t give a shit about whether there was a secret tape of him saying “kike,” and would find it I bizarre for the country to treat that as a huge story — on which the president’s fitness for office might hinge — since doing so necessarily implies that what is already publicly visible was within the bounds of acceptability.

Ed: Certainly those who believe discrimination against white people is the great civil rights cause of our era aren’t going to abandon him over it.

Jon: I mean, I think we all agree Trump is pretty racist. But using that word, in this day and age, is a deliberate choice that signals something important about one’s intent. You’re not merely indicating a willingness to overlook structural racism. You’re signaling active, sweeping hostility.

Ezekiel: I think there would be a lot of talk about “why black people are allowed to say it”, Kanye West, rap music, “context,” black culture, Chris Rock, “double standards,” etc. etc. — my guess is that the vast majority of people who currently support him would find a way to justify it. Many of them would even find a way to frame it as a positive. But as Jon said, losing a fraction of his support could hurt him pretty badly.

Ed: Maybe I’m alone here, but I strongly believe that nine out of ten people who endlessly complain about “political correctness,” which is one of Trump’s signatures, are defending the right to make racist (or sexist) jokes. Use of the N-word is probably on the line, but yeah, the “why do ‘the blacks’ get to say it?” would be heard a lot.

Jon: But losing the one in ten is a disaster.

Eric: But praising General Pershing for (supposedly) mass murdering Muslim prisoners-of-war with bullets soaked in pigs’ blood is also signaling active, sweeping hostility to a minority group.

Jon: Yeah, but not in the same way, I don’t think.

Eric: I think the fact that there’s any question about Trump’s overt racism reflects the fact that our political culture treats bigotry towards Muslisms as fundamentally more acceptable than overt expressions of anti-black racism.

Ezekiel: Here’s a question — would the reaction be any different than that of the combined impact of the Access Hollywood tape + the dozen or so women who came forward to accuse Trump of sexual harassment?

Jon: That’s a great question. Here’s a distinction I would draw — in the minds of many people, or at least the conservative-leaning ones I’m describing, sexual harassment is an act he was merely describing, while the N-word is itself an act. So they might dismiss the tape because it was merely describing actions that may have unfolded elsewhere, but the N-word tape is the action itself.

Eric: Yeah. They could still maybe pull a similar “he was just joking” sorta move. “Locker room talk,” and what have you.

Ed: Well, if he was reciting a Richard Pryor routine, he might have that defense …

Eric: But if I had to guess, I think an N-word tape in October would have been more damaging.

Jon: Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m sheltered. I have never heard a white person use that term about black people. So in my mind it’s a nuclear bomb, but maybe I am wrong about how it would unfold.

Eric:  Wow, really?

Ezekiel: Haha. Well, I can assure you that it happens, and depending.

Jon: Haha yes, I realize that.

Ed: You really have lived a sheltered life, Jon.

Eric: I haven’t heard it a lot, but have def been in the company of white people saying it.

Ed:  I probably haven’t heard it more than 700 or 800 times.

Jon: Wow.

Ed: You have to appreciate I grew up in the Jim Crow South. The word was not tolerated in my own household, but it was used commonly by my maternal relatives, many classmates, etc. Actually some of my paternal relatives as well, though some used marginally genteel variations.

Jon: I mean, I grew up in a suburb of Detroit where lots of parents (not mine) would not let their kids go south of 8 Mile Road, so my frame of reference is a world where all kinds of racist assumptions might circulate, but that word would be totally verboten. I could see the parents of many of my classmates nodding along when Trump equates cities with crime and so on, but being shocked at the word. Again, maybe this is my idiosyncratic perspective.

Ezekiel: It is often the case that people modify their language depending upon the audience … but I think we’re getting a little far afield here. Who Does And Doesn’t Hear the N-word and Why is perhaps a different chat, haha. Anyhow: My case for the existence of the N-word tape is that it would be darkly humorous, given the rumors of the Michelle Obama “whitey tape” that circulated during the ‘08 primary and campaign.

Ed: Good point.

Ezekiel: One of my favorite forgotten subplots of that campaign.

Eric: The 2032 news cycle about whether the Democratic candidate’s #cancelwhitepeople tweet is more disqualifying than the Republican’s #whitegenocide ones is gonna be lit.

The ‘N-word Tape’ Tape