Addressing a rally last weekend, former president Donald Trump presented himself as the victim of racist prosecutors. “These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people. They’re racists and they’re very sick. They’re mentally sick,” he bellowed. “If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal,” Trump said, “I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta, and elsewhere. Because our country and our elections are corrupt.”
Yesterday, his largest adult son, Eric, took up the refrain with a slightly classier spin, filing suit against New York Attorney General Letitia James for what he called her “third world” conduct.
If you still need a decoder ring, the Trumps habitually attack whomever is prosecuting them as corrupt, but the alleged corruption is usually cast as either akin to Russia (i.e., second world) or embodying the corruption of American institutions Trump frequently alleges. Eric’s “third world” epithet is a specific reminder that the prosecutors in New York are Black and therefore lack the standing to charge his upstanding family with crimes.
In reality, the Trump Organization is not the victim of racist prosecutors. The firm is being investigated because it committed an exhaustively documented series of fraudulent acts. I happen to think the correct vernacular for its business model is stealing, though our political culture tends to reserve that word for acts like lifting money out of a cash register, while employing more delicate terms for the illegal methods rich people use to take money that isn’t theirs.
The best defense you could make of the Trump Organization would be that lots of other wealthy people engage in crime too, and Trump is only being singled out because his fame inspired reporters to go out and prove what a huge crook he is. Whatever the merits of that argument, though, it’s a far cry from Trump being the victim of racism.
Indeed, the sheer outrageousness of this claim might be easier for conservatives to grasp if they imagine the situation reversed. Suppose a Black man had spent years committing a string of crimes and claimed without any basis that prosecutors were racist, and then tried to whip up street protests against the prosecutors. Conservatives would have a meltdown of biblical proportions, even if this person was just a regular civilian and not the once and potentially future president of the United States.
Conservatives spend an inordinate amount of time denouncing promiscuous accusations of racism. Racism is a gigantic problem in American life. The use of specious charges of racism to shut down debate is a much smaller yet still important problem. Finding sane approaches to identify racism, without allowing shaky charges of racism to become a cudgel against legitimate debate, is a difficult proposition.
One fascinating aspect of the current era is that this problem has come to a head during an era dominated by Donald Trump, a figure who manages to combine the worst aspects of both problems. Trump of course is very famously a gigantic racist. But he is also in the habit of flinging unfounded charges of racism as a cover for his own misconduct. His ability to combine the worst aspects of racism with the worst aspects of political correctness is a unique achievement.