The Race-Hustler-in-Chief

When the last president waded into race matters, conservative media were harshly critical. But Trump’s race-baiting earns nary a peep.
July 6, 2020
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ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - JUNE 27: Businessman Donald Trump waves to the crowd at Tyson vs Spinks Convention Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey June 27 1988. (Photo by Jeffrey Asher/ Getty Images)

This morning Donny from the Dixie Borough of Queens fired off a random shot at the most prominent black NASCAR driver and offered a full-throated defense of the Confederate Battle Flag’s presence at the racetrack:

This comes just a few days after he shared a video of an old white guy with a thick Northeastern accent on a golf cart shouting “white power.”

This would be a pretty standard series of events from the local Archie Bunker who likes to call in to sports-talk radio to complain about how all the Nets players wear baggy shorts now and don’t play fundamental ball like they did back in his day.

But in this instance Donny from Queens is the president of the United States and these rants are coming during a time of heightened racial tensions around the country when any other president would be using his pulpit to heal and unite.

With that backdrop there are only three ways to interpret Trump’s remarks:

1) He is purposefully instigating racial tensions because he believes that it will help him politically if there is a race war.

2) He is a racist with no self-control and is engaging in self-sabotage.

3) He is too stupid to realize what he is doing and he is just recklessly tweeting anything that he sees on Fox & Friends or that his racist buddies said to him in a recent phone call.

I’ll take a little from doors numbered 1, 2, and 3, depending on the day.

But no matter which door you open, what greets you on the other side is a president who is inserting himself into random racial disputes in a way that ignites and inflames tensions rather than assuages them.

And believe it or not, just 10 short years ago, conservative media were united in condemning such behavior!

In July, 2009 Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. returned home from a trip abroad to find the front door to his house jammed shut. With the help of his driver he forced the door open, only to have a neighbor call the Cambridge police on him. Gates was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct in his own home.

President Barack Obama, then in only the seventh month of his first term, weighed in on the encounter in typically analytical fashion:

I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.

The response to this rather anodyne observation was apoplectic.

Rush Limbaugh called Obama a “community agitator” and said he is “not a force for positive race relations in this country.”

Michael Savage called him a “jive artist.” (Subtle stuff, Mike.)

Ben Shapiro said that Obama was “preying on unwarranted white guilt”: “Whites can never quite do enough to atone for the sins of their ancestors. And blacks, short of openly violent conduct, can never do anything that would justify arrest.” Shapiro went on: “Institutional racism . . . is a bogeyman, a windmill at which whites are supposed to tilt, and for which unsuccessful African-Americans can blame their lack of advancement.” Yikes.

National Review editor Rich Lowry, in his syndicated column, wrote that “Obama’s ignorance didn’t keep him from commenting on a matter of local policing ordinarily beneath the notice of the leader of the free world.” (I was not aware that Rich thought there were topics beneath the leader of the free world—a fascinating standard I would invite him to revisit under the current president.)

And National Review’s Andy McCarthy said it was “shameful for an American president to describe the police as ‘stupid’ and feed into the racializing of the Gates case.”

You could find articles like these, which made the case that Obama was wrong to weigh in, that he was “racializing” the case, and that he was making tensions worse not better, in literally every conservative publication in the country—and a rant on every single Fox News program.

But over just the past week, Trump has engaged in far, FAR more grotesque and overtly bigoted “racializing” of issues that are “ordinarily beneath the notice of the leader of the free world” than anything Obama ever did. And it’s part of a tired pattern from Charlottesville to “send them back” to “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In fact, Trump has done this so often that sometimes his race-baiting tweets go by without even meriting a media mention.

And yet the response from the right is explaining it away as Trump being a doofus, or laments about how the Republican party could possibly be seen as a vehicle for racism, or what someone once called strategic silence.

So once again Trump’s actions have been clarifying. He’s revealed that criticisms of Obama for trying to mediate a parochial racial profiling case weren’t good-faith attempts to police how a president should use their platform to help ease racial tensions.

It turns out the objection these commentators had wasn’t the fact that Obama weighed in on a racially charged case.

Their objection was that he weighed in on behalf of the black person.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark's writer-at-large and a communications consultant. He previously served as senior advisor to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, communications director for Jeb Bush, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.