A month ago, President Trump added to his rally speech a new riff about Ilhan Omar, expressing indignation that the Democratic member of Congress would dare to express opinions about American government. “She’s telling us how to run our country,” he sneered. “How did you do where you came from? How’s your country doing? She’s going to tell us — she’s telling us how to run our country.”
Omar is an American citizen who immigrated to the United States legally as a child. Trump’s claim that she has no right to participate in American politics because she is an immigrant from Africa — and that she is permanently defined by her country of origin — is not only flagrantly racist but would have been seen as bigoted a hundred years ago. And yet he has continued to repeat this grotesque racist attack on her at rally after rally before braying crowds.
This is the sort of outburst that used to trouble a certain strain of professional conservative. The right-wing intelligentsia has formed three broad categories of response to Trump. The most enthusiastic, on the right, have defended the president unreservedly. The most disgusted (“Never Trumpers”) have denounced him and often his enablers as well.
In the broad middle of conservatism is a third category of conservative I have in mind here. These are the conservatives who will occasionally acknowledge Trump’s flaws even while supporting him broadly. They will ruefully and sarcastically bemoan his childishness, egotism, and self-destructive habits without ever urging a course of action that might stop him (Democratic control of Congress, enforcement of congressional oversight, impeachment, voting for Joe Biden).
These conservatives have spent the last four years mostly directing their energies attacking Trump’s opponents or dissecting the flaws in the arguments against him. They are most comfortable discussing something else. Usually, that something else is the excesses of the cultural left. If you read National Review, or Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, you find them filled with ghastly tales of obnoxious progressives unfairly calling something racist or sexist.
I happen to believe that the use of witch-hunt tactics on the left is a problem — not as important a problem as racism, but a problem, and have made this point repeatedly. Conservatives clearly (almost by definition) consider the left’s response to racism worse than racism itself. They have believed this forever, since National Review’s founding, when William F. Buckley was mocking civil-rights demonstrations in the South. But even conservatives who take this position acknowledge that racism is bad.
Or, at least, they acknowledge it in the abstract. Trump’s emergence onto the national scene has complicated matters for them. Their position requires dismissing racism as a vestigial prejudice whose once-doleful influence has waned to the point of irrelevance. Trump’s insistence on reminding people that racism and sexism remain alive and well makes a mockery of their pat dismissal.
Even worse, his constant outbursts of unconcealed bigotry force them to choose between affirming their official racism-is-bad line and offending their audience, which adores everything about Trump, perhaps most especially his raw assertion of white-male prerogative.
The default position for this brand of anti-anti-Trump conservative was to ignore Trump’s racism when possible, acknowledge and dismiss when necessary. The main subject was always Trump’s critics, but Trump himself would sometimes pop into the field of vision. His worst offenses were subjected to careful parsing. Shapiro’s agonized equivocation over Trump’s reported comments about opposing immigration from “shithole countries” in Africa from 2018 is a classic of the genre:
Perhaps Trump is a racist. Perhaps not. Either way, we can have a productive conversation about whether particular Trump statements or actions are racist. But we can’t have a productive conversation that starts from the premise that Trump is a racist overall, and that every action he takes and every statement he makes is therefore covered with the patina of racism.
Trump may do and say racist things — quite a few of them, in fact, over a long period of time — but Shapiro believes it’s unfair to describe him as a “racist.” “Racist-American,” perhaps? “Person of racism?”
As the evidence of Trump’s bigotry has piled up, the need to ignore it has grown more urgent. A quasi-endorsement of Trump that ran in National Review recently is a telling document in this regard. Unwilling either to lash itself to the candidate it had famously opposed in a special “Against Trump Issue” or to alienate its readership, NR published three signed endorsement essays — one pro-Trump, one anti-, and the other undecided. The latter, by Charles C.W. Cooke, positioned as the “reasonable” middle ground for conservatives, seems to function as a proxy editorial and a final statement of the magazine’s assessment of the president.
Cooke’s argument contains a healthy mix of criticism and praise for Trump, along with unstinting hostility toward Joe Biden. (The implicit combination of these assessments, mixed toward Trump and uniformly hostile to Biden, makes it a kind of sub-rosa Trump endorsement.) Most revealingly, while it lashes Trump for a variety of personal and ideological failings, Cooke’s editorial does not scold him for his racism or sexism, even in a single aside. The only mention of Trump’s position on identity politics is a line praising him for having “chosen to use his platform to champion the nation’s history and push back against ‘critical race theory,’ a cancerous ideology that, if unchecked, will destroy the country from within.”
Cooke’s view is echoed in a recent column by NR editor Rich Lowry, arguing that if Trump wins, the credit would belong to him becoming “the foremost symbol of resistance to the overwhelming woke cultural tide that has swept along the media, academia, corporate America, Hollywood, professional sports, the big foundations, and almost everything in between,” including “the 1619 Project.”
We should be clear that, as National Review is tallying its final assessment of Trump at the end of his term, his position on race nets out as a positive in the ledger. They are not supporting him despite his record on racism, but in part because of it.
Supposedly, this is because Trump rejects the overly dark vision of American history in the “1619 Project.” But Trump is a hilariously flawed vessel to advance conservatives’ idealistic historical view of America as a shining city on a hill. He has frequently compared the United States to the world’s most odious regimes and denied any moral difference between it and gangster states like Putin’s Russia. While conservatives spent years mining a selectively edited Barack Obama quote to falsely depict him as a critic of American exceptionalism, Trump has openly attacked the concept (“When [Putin] criticizes the president for using the term ‘American exceptionalism,’ if you’re in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional”). He claims American military heroes have committed war crimes and boasts of having done them himself. Trump actually paints the United States in much darker tones than the “1619 Project” (which is filled with a belief in the possibility of improvement and redemption). He shares Howard Zinn’s basic belief that American history is a procession of mass murder and colonial appropriation. The main difference in their worldview is that Trump sees these crimes as good things.
So bear in mind, when conservatives hold up Trump’s opposition to critical race theory and the “1619 Project” as arguments in his favor, they are not thinking primarily about American idealism as a civic creed. They are thinking of … other elements of Trump’s racial politics.
What makes this argument especially transparent is that the alternative to Trump is not AOC or even Elizabeth Warren, but Joe Biden, the scourge of the woke left. Biden is not a “1619 Project” guy. He has sung the praises of America’s history, defining its progression up from racism as its central theme. He has even claimed, preposterously, that the country has never had a racist president before Trump!
Biden opposes defunding the police. He has spent the campaign defending his authorship of a tough-on-crime bill, even into the general election, where Trump has assailed him for locking up too many Black men. (Were their positions reversed, this topic would be Exhibit A in NR’s indictment of Biden as a woke, soft-on-crime leftist.)
“The Biden campaign does not care about the critical race theory–intersectional left that has taken over places like the New York Times,” a Democratic strategist told Politico this summer. “You can be against chokeholds and not believe in white fragility. You can be for reforming police departments and don’t necessarily have to believe that the United States is irredeemably racist.”
Biden’s availability as the alternative is what puts the lie to the right’s argument that Trump offers the only resistance to the cultural far left. Conservatives could support a candidate who wants to increase police funding and believes deeply in America’s goodness and pledges in every speech to represent the entire country. They would rather have the candidate who gives them those positions alongside a decades-long record of virulent racism.
The conservatives could make a case for supporting Trump despite his racial politics. Instead they present his racial politics as a point in his favor. One day, after Trump is gone, they will make it out that they never liked the racism. But the stink will cling to them nevertheless.