WASHINGTON – Donald Trump plays on racial fears and animosities in an ugly, deliberate and dangerous way. This dance with bigotry goes far beyond his temporary amnesia about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan.
Trump speaks as if he considers whiteness the norm and sees people of color as somehow alien and suspect. He is the only major American political figure in many decades to display such an antediluvian worldview so openly. Trump doesn’t tweet dog whistles, he blasts foghorns.
He brags about getting along famously with “the blacks” and “the Hispanics.” How long has it been since anyone in public life used such casually exclusionary language? There are about 40 million African-Americans and more than 55 million Hispanic-Americans, all of them reduced, by Trump’s use of the definite article, to sidekick status – the “good” ones being, I suppose, a bunch of Sammy Davis Jrs. and Ricky Ricardos.
Trump’s entire platform, such as it is, can be reduced to “us vs. them.” The overwhelmingly white, largely blue-collar crowds that fill his gargantuan rallies are buffeted by harsh economic realities and have good reason to be anxious about the future. Trump doesn’t give them solutions, he gives them scapegoats.
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Recall that he kicked off his campaign for president last year with an outrageous libel against undocumented migrants from Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
In truth, immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crimes of any kind – including rape – than native-born Americans. But facts don’t matter when Trump chooses to point a finger of blame. He even makes the preposterous and wholly unfounded charge that the government of Mexico is deliberately sending criminals, including sexual predators, into the United States.
To justify the “big, beautiful wall” he claims he will build along the border, Trump uses a resonant phrase: “We either have a country, or we don’t.” Together with his campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again” – those words require a bit of unpacking.
The clear implication is that “we” once had a “great” country – but if all those Latinos are permitted to swarm in, “we” won’t have our country at all. It will belong to the encroaching hordes. Never mind that the border is more secure than it has been in decades and illegal crossings have slowed to a trickle. Trump’s goal is to create the impression that “they” are besieging “us,” and that he will put an end to it.
Perhaps this is what he truly believes. I recall something he said last September, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, and has since repeated: “I was in Paris recently, and Paris doesn’t look like Paris anymore.”
What could Trump be talking about? The Eiffel Tower hasn’t changed. Nor have the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre or the lovely Place des Vosges. But a visitor does share the boulevards with more dark-skinned people, mostly the sons and daughters of immigrants from former French colonies. Trump never spells this out, but I’ve only heard him use the line in discussions about immigration.
There’s a history to consider. In 1989, Trump took out a full-page ad in four major New York newspapers to demand the return of the death penalty after five young black and Hispanic men were accused of raping and brutalizing a Central Park jogger. The men were convicted and sent to prison – but later exonerated by DNA evidence and released. Trump wrote an op-ed arguing the city should not compensate the men for their years of unjust imprisonment because, even if they did not commit the rape, they “do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
Trump still cannot bring himself to acknowledge that President Obama was born in the United States; once a birther, always a birther, I guess. A poll in September showed that two-thirds of Trump’s supporters believe Obama is a Muslim; Trump does nothing whatsoever to disabuse them of that false notion.
Several recent polls have shown that a majority of Republicans, not just Trumpistas, support his idea of temporarily banning all foreign Muslims from entering the country. It would be impossible to implement such a policy – just as it would be impossible to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. But actually doing these things is not the point. Activating populist anger against Muslims and Latinos seems to be what Trump is after.
There are just two possibilities: Either Trump is a bigot or he pretends to be one for political gain. Pick your poison.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.