Any time President Trump supplies fresh new evidence of his racism, his Republican allies move through a decision tree. The first question is: “Do I have to acknowledge this happened, or can I ignore it?” Most episodes can simply be ignored. Trump’s new riff about how Ilhan Omar, a legal immigrant, has no business offering opinions to real Americans on how to govern “our country”? Ignorable. Trump retweeting random images of Black people attacking whites circulated by Nazis? Ignorable.
Because Trump’s comments on white supremacists in general, and the Proud Boys in particular, occurred in front of an audience exceeding 70 million Americans, they could not be ignored. This activated the second step in the decision tree: “Explain away his comments, or urge him to revise them?”
The “pro-Trump” version of this statement is to insist he was misunderstood. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina said, “I’ll leave it to the president. I know he’s not racist. I’m sure he doesn’t approve of their activities.” Rick Santorum helpfully explained that Trump is not a racist but in the unfortunate habit of automatically defending anybody who’s on his side, a category that happens to include all the white supremacists.
The “anti-Trump” version of these comments is to acknowledge his mistake and urge the president to clean it up. “I think he misspoke. I think he should correct it. If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak,” said Senator Tim Scott. “All he has to say is ‘There’s no place for racial intolerance in this country’ and be very forceful about it,” said Representative Tom Cole.
Note that even the harsh version of the response defines Trump’s offenses as mistakes. They can always be wiped away with future action. They can never reveal anything about his underlying character. Racism may be a thing that Trump does, but it can never be who he is.
Half a dozen years ago, I wrote a long story about how race largely explained the right’s fervent opposition to Barack Obama. (This was pre-Ferguson, when overt racial debate was much less common.) My argument had a tinge of sympathy for the right: Since its philosophy mixed principles that were largely race neutral with a political appeal rooted mainly in race, it did place conservatives in a sometimes unfair position of having suspicion attached to almost any idea they articulated. A racist might wish, say, to eliminate Obamacare (which was created under a Black president and disproportionately benefits Black people), but this does not make opposition to Obamacare per se racist.
The racial controversies of the Trump era are not like that. They involve either barely disguised racist dog whistles, overtly racist statements, or Trump’s wink-and-nod relationship with white supremacists.
The latter has followed a pattern since Trump appeared on the political scene and galvanized white supremacists by expressing their ideology in a more recognizable form than any other plausible major-party presidential candidate had done. Reporters would prod Trump into renouncing their support. At first he would dodge: “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.” When reporters would let it go, he would use strangely bloodless language — “I disavow” — that Duke and his supporters heard as a kind of wink and nod.
Trump’s delicate dance with the Proud Boys at the debate, and then yesterday, had the same slippery tone. First he told them to “stand by,” then he claimed not to know who they were, then he finally used the same stilted language. (“I’ve always denounced any form, any form of that; you have to denounce.”)
There is a reason Trump’s condemnations of white supremacists must be pulled out of him and lack any traces of the anger he is able to summon routinely for his enemies. Trump recognizes white supremacists as a species of his ally. They are controversial allies, to be sure, too hot to be brought onstage or embraced openly. But they are on Trump’s side, attacking the people he wishes to attack.
Trump is emotionally transparent, a volcano of bluster, rage, and self-gratification continually pouring forth. His affect is a far more accurate mode of communication than his text. His complete lack of animus for white supremacists is a message he has transmitted as clearly as if he towed it on a banner from Air Force One.
Two top former officials at the Department of Homeland Security, Elizabeth Neumann and Miles Taylor, have told the Daily Beast that the administration has an unofficial policy of avoiding any mention of domestic terrorism or white supremacy around the president. Like mentioning Russia, the mere term can set him off into a defensive rage.
The similarities, of course, are manifold: Russia and white supremacists are both sources of illegitimate political support for Trump. Even many members of his own administration are uncomfortable that they have found a place in the Republican coalition in the Trump era. Trump is perpetually on the lookout for any traitors who would cast them in an unflattering light, understanding that criticism of plots by white supremacists (or Russia) indicates disloyalty and can serve as a kind of proxy criticism of himself.
Trump has expanded the rightward boundaries of the Republican coalition. QAnon, right-wing militias, and white supremacists now see themselves as a valued part of Republican politics, the activities of which include patrolling the streets, and perhaps polling places, with weapons. Trump won’t do anything to stop them from undertaking these dangerous actions, because he and they understand they are answering his call.