Around the same time President Trump suffered a massive reversal in the midterm election and subverted the rule of law by installing a pliant right-wing hack as acting attorney general, he was engaged in the most blatant and public display of sustained racism against African-Americans of his entire public career. Trump’s racism binge included a series of absurd insinuations that three African-American journalists and two political candidates lacked the qualifications for their positions.
The official Republican defense of this behavior is that Trump is not a racist, but merely combative. “He does it to everyone. Not everything is about race,” sniffs former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “I think he’s just combative,” explains Rick Santorum. Trump’s defenders have settled on this explanation long ago. After Trump questioned allowing any immigrants from “shithouse countries,” Lindsey Graham insisted Trump is “absolutely not a racist. It’s not the color of your skin that matters, it’s not the content of your character. It’s whether or not you show him respect and like him.” The Trump of the Republican imagination is some kind of Don Rickles–Martin Luther King hybrid figure, spraying out wanton abuse without regard to race, creed, or gender.
It is obviously impossible to prove what is going on inside Trump’s brain. And his promiscuous verbal abuse has complicated the case a bit — it’s clearly true that Trump also denigrates white people and men. But the defense of Trump against the charge of racism, which was never especially plausible, has collapsed altogether.
Trump’s presidential campaign began with a splashy racist attacks on Mexican immigrants, followed by a racist attack on a Mexican-American judge. But his racism toward African-Americans forms the longer through-line of his career. The Department of Justice proved that Trump’s housing empire discriminated against prospective African-American renters (by sending black customers, who would be told no units were available, and then white ones, who would be told otherwise.) Trump famously took out a full-page ad demanding the execution of the “Central Park Five” for a rape for which they were later exonerated, and captured conservative enthusiasm by promoting the birther hoax against President Obama.
The twin themes in all these actions is Trump’s association of African-Americans with crime and disorder, and a belief that they are inherently unworthy of representation among the elite. These are beliefs Trump has formed without evidence and clung to even when they are debunked — which is to say, they are the very definition of prejudice.
Michael Cohen recently disclosed a series of racist comments Trump made in private — remarking of a poor neighborhood in Chicago, “Only the blacks could live like this”; saying, “Name one country run by a black person that’s not a shithole”; and the like. No doubt Republicans dismiss any claims made by Cohen as revenge by a disgruntled former loyalist trying to curry favor with Trump’s opposition. But if Cohen has decided to make up offensive comments by Trump, he has done an unusually skillful job of mimicking both the president’s lexicon and his worldview. These are not random racist comments. They are distinctly Trumpian racist comments.
His recent spate of attacks on various African-American antagonists closely track these themes. Trump has a general template for lashing out at anybody who threatens him. He calls them losers, complains they’re nasty or treat him unfairly, calls them jealous of his success or ungrateful for his help (if they once supported him) or ugly (if they are female.) If he can’t think of any other insults, he’ll call his target “sleepy.” His comments about African-Americans, though, have a more specific connotation.
When CNN’s Abby Phillip asked if he wanted acting attorney general Matt Whitaker to rein in Robert Mueller, which he has publicly asked Whitaker’s predecessor to do, Trump lashed out, “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.” When April Ryan asked if his self-styled “nationalism” encouraged white nationalists, who regard Trump with palpable enthusiasm, he said, “You talk about someone who’s a loser. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing. She gets publicity and then she gets a pay raise, or she gets a contract with, I think, CNN.”
Likewise, Trump dismissed Stacey Abrams, who has a public policy degree from the University of Texas and a law degree from Yale, in addition to a bachelor’s degree from Spelman, as “not qualified.” He charged that Florida Democratic governor candidate Andrew Gillum “is not equipped to be your governor. It’s not for him,” and called him a “thief.”
Conservatives believe liberals automatically accuse them of racism — a somewhat understandable complaint, because many progressives do assume that any comment that a racist would say is presumptively racist. But it is long past the point where Trump’s behavior can be explained any other way. And the Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge Trump’s bigotry fatally undermines any presumption of good faith.