So here’s a sentence to curdle the blood: The most prominent moral teacher in America today is President Donald Trump.
This is, of course, slightly less impressive than it sounds; in our era of atomization, no single leader speaks for a majority of Americans. But you’d be hard-pressed to think of another public figure who has captured the hearts and minds of such a large swath of the country as Trump has with the roughly one fourth of Americans who regularly testify their strong approval for his project of restoring America’s lost greatness. Gone are the days when conservatives by the millions pulled the lever for the president with fear and trembling, calling him the “lesser of two evils,” pledging to keep him and his flaws at arm’s length. In short order President Trump had captured first their media, then their politicians, and finally them.
When it comes to some of the most pressing questions about how we, as Americans, ought to perceive and interact with the world—How ought we treat our friends? Our enemies? Strangers from other communities and sojourners from foreign lands?—Donald Trump now sets the horizons of what is and is not permissible, what is and is not to be discussed. And more people are taking their cues from him than from any other American alive.
All this comes gloomily to mind as Washington enters its incredible fourth consecutive week of President Trump exercising what appears to have become his new go-to political strategy: lashing out on Twitter and in interviews with sneering, racially-charged attacks on every minority opponent who flickers across his television. What started with “go back to your country” jeers at four young progressive congresswomen is now apparently spreading out of control, with Trump first taking shots over the weekend at Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore (“No human being would want to live there!”), Barack Obama (“They could look into the book deal that President Obama made. Let’s subpoena all of his records.”), then, finally, going after Al Sharpton a day later (“Hates Whites and Cops!”).
The White House and its allies in the media have been working overtime to explain why it’s an outrageous left-wing media smear to describe the president’s racist remarks as racist. The sentence “President Trump doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” has been uttered many, many times. Lindsey Graham reasoned that Trump’s remarks about Somali-American immigrant Ilhan Omar, which spurred a lengthy, spontaneous chant of “send her back!” at a North Carolina rally, weren’t racist on the grounds that “A Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back. If you’re racist, you want everybody from Somalia to go back.” Fox News’s Greg Gutfield offered a case that’s marginally more compelling:
These defenses, and dozens of others like them, have something in common: They’re defenses, not of Trump’s words or actions, but of his heart and mind. President Trump’s allies don’t want to fight a battle about whether the president has said or done racist things. The grounds on which they want to fight is the question of whether the president is—in his heart of hearts—a racist.
It may seem like a minor distinction, but this is very canny stuff. The Trumpworld strategy is to conjure a specific image of a racist: someone controlled by their overwhelming hatred and fury toward minorities, someone who wants to see them all rounded up or deported or stashed away in ghettos, an ideologue who sees black and brown people as an existential threat to life in America as “we” know it. If that’s what racism is—if that’s all racism is—then the Gutfield defense is a strong one. Klansmen don’t fight for criminal justice reform or meet with wonderful Inner City Pastors!
And if that’s what racism is, well, damned if we know what to call it when the president derides his opponents’ largely non-white cities or nations of origin as a means of discrediting their attacks on him—but we sure know it isn’t racist. And just for good measure, maybe you’re the racist for saying so.
All this is, of course, a deeply disingenuous dodge. Whether the president of the United States secretly harbors vicious ethnic animosity toward the millions of minority citizens he is supposed to represent is important. But it’s not the most important thing. The most important things are what he says and what he does. Because the real pathology here is that Trump is suggesting that using racism for your own ends is not a problem, so long as the person doing so is not himself a racist.
You see how ludicrous the proposition by how it requires racism to be defined down to an impossibly narrow set of attitudes and behaviors: If he’s such a racist, why isn’t he calling for genocide or burning crosses on the White House lawn? As if anything short of marching in a tiki torch parade doesn’t count as real racism.
But let’s posit that Trump is not, in this sense, a “real” racist; that his use of racist tropes and racially inflammatory rhetoric are only political maneuvering that he thinks will give his poll numbers a jolt. The question is: What difference does it make?
Much of the criticism Trump has received over the last few years has been centered on the effects his presidency has had on the narrow fringe of Americans who actually hold enthusiastic, “real” racist beliefs—the white nationalists and white supremacists from which, time and again, he has been reluctant to distance himself. This has been understandable, particularly on the occasions when white supremacists have felt emboldened enough to carry out acts of deadly violence—as at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, or as recently as at the Gilroy Garlic Fest this weekend.
But the greater damage Trump inflicts might well go the other way: Not in turning more and more of his American supporters into out-and-out white nationalists, but in reassuring them that other, “milder” forms of racism aren’t really racism at all. Many Americans have tuned their political compasses—and, by extension, their moral ones—to the lodestar of Donald Trump. He might one day decide to use that power responsibly. Or he might keep on doing what he’s been doing all along, exploiting it for his own short-term political gain, harming his supporters and his opponents alike, and dragging us all down with him.