United States President Donald Trump has long resorted to racist expression, as has been widely reported. He has discriminated against black renters, stereotypically characterised blacks as “lazy” and Jews as “good money managers”. He has called Mexicans “rapists and criminals”, Muslims “terrorists” and “anti-American”, and said Norwegians, presumptively white, would make great immigrants.
In his most recent attacks on “The Squad” – the four congresswomen of colour – each occupies for Trump a representative of his racist palette: Ayanna Pressley is African-American, the parents of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hailed from Puerto Rica, Rashida Tlaib is Palestinian-American, and Ilhan Omar is Somalian-American. The latter two are both Muslim. At one point or another, Trump has made derogatory comments about each of these ethno-racial identities, at least implicitly dismissing their family places of origin as racially problematic.
Each time Trump has made remarks widely taken by journalists, commentators, critics and indeed political competitors to be racist, he has denied he is racist. He has repeatedly insisted he “is the least racist person that you have ever met”. That he feels the need to evade the charge signals that Trump is mindful that there is something morally reprehensible about the equation.
When asked whether Trump’s remarks about the congresswomen are racist, Senate leader Mitch McConnell emphasised that “the president is not a racist” and White House advisor Kellyanne Conway asked the journalist posing the question, who happened to be Jewish, “What is your ethnicity?” Both McConnell and Conway were offering responses to a question not asked. Trump himself has now repeated that he doesn’t “have a Racist bone in my body! [sic]” He added, “Those Tweets were NOT Racist [sic]”. Evasion is a common refusal to acknowledge responsibility. A National Review article called his tweets “stupid but not racist”, with no account of why they don’t qualify. Not having a racist bone does not preclude having racist thoughts. Trump does not so much evade – he seems incapable of it – as to flat-out deny. Denial is a common response to the charge of racist expression. It usually takes one of two forms.
Forms of denial
First, those condemned for racist expression or supporters will deny racist intentionality. I had no purpose in my head to express myself or act in racist ways, therefore I can’t have. This legalese overlooks the compelling counter. If so expressing oneself and the effects it produces are so common that any reasonable person should know the effects to be racially discriminatory or deleterious, then one cannot reasonably deny the racist quality of expression or act. Looking the other way, unreasonable lack of knowledge of the principle excuses no one.
Relatedly, Trump and his defenders point out that he made no explicit reference to race in the comments, as though one cannot be racist without explicitly mentioning the term “race”. Dog whistles, veiled references, slips, double entendres, winking and hand waving all constitute common versions of racism. It is so common that scholars have named it accordingly as “racism without race”.
Does all this make Trump racist? As many are now pointing out, if you repeatedly say racist things that makes you one. That Trump claims to be the arbiter of who is and is not racist – Nancy Pelosi is not, he has said, Donald Trump is not, he repeats – entails two things. First, he cannot deny that he doesn’t know. This is reinforced by the fact that when criticised for pushing the Barack Obama “birther” claim, he tried blaming Hillary Clinton for the birth of the birther charge in her 2008 campaign against Obama. Trump needs only to look in the mirror to know. The racist is staring him in the face.
Trump, in the face of all this, however, is doing something new.
Draining words of meaning
This president has few principles. Love of country may be one, though he has disparaged people who have suffered or died representing the country in wars. He will say or do anything to advance his self-interest. That’s not a principle, in that it is not based on any articulated set of ideas. It is pure self-advancement. So his racist expression is not principled. Which doesn’t make it not racist. It makes his racism purely prejudicial and instrumental. He of course holds stereotypes of racially characterised others – blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims. But he has no account, let alone a theory, on which he draws. It is “mere” personal observation, bigoted from the outset. That too has a long racist history. Trump exacerbates the instrumentalisation, turning it into something of an “art”. His artfulness, a barely orchestrated performativity, multiplies the awfulness.
Trump is trading on two forms of de-meaning. One is the standard practice of demeaning – of saying nasty, disparaging things about those he wishes to throw off balance: critics, his opponents, those not servile or willing to praise him. The disparagement takes many forms: gendered, racial, personal, etc. When it is even implicitly racial, especially as a dog-whistle, it is racist, just as when it is gender driven it is sexist.
This other mode of de-meaning is relatively novel, at least in its extreme application. Trump seeks to denude terms of their established meanings. In the case of racist expression, he is constantly casting doubt on the meanings of terms. “I said nothing about race,” when not mentioning it. “I didn’t mention their colour,” because he didn’t have to. He is schooling his fellow Republicans in doing this. One congressman defended Trump by denying the president was saying that the congresswomen should “go back to other countries” when saying they “should go back home” but that they should “return to their districts” when in fact Trump is repeatedly explicit about their leaving the country. The conventional meanings of terms are erased, filled with a different, more “neutral” meaning. This is not rationalisation but reinvention, fabrication as making things up in order to weave a new narrative, one less costly to Trump.
Trump applies this second sense of the denuding of meaning more radically than others. He redirects the charge of racism at his critics. “They are racist for calling me racist.” This is not just clever. It is to remake the very notion at issue in order to put his critics on the defensive. It is a furthering of the logic that identifies criticism of Israel as antisemitic, as racist. Trump has been explicit about the latter. He has called Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel as “vile and antisemitic” (she has been careful mostly not to criticise Jews), indeed painting the other members of The Squad as guilty by association, thus further generalising across difference.
What of Trump’s supporters? Are they racist for supporting, defending or exonerating his racism? In the two days following his remarks, during which time he both reiterated and refused to back down from them, a poll found Republican support for him had increased by 5%. Complicity with an assassination does not make one the assassin. Someone who enables, supports, helps to put the person in a position of assassinating or subsequent escape are not per se assassins too. They are accomplices to the wrongdoing, which is a specific form of wrongdoing itself. The same applies to racist character assassination, which is what Trump has been engaging in his nearly 50 years of racist expression, and now with The Squad.
So deny all he wants, Trump has become the poster boy of the new, or renewed, old racism.
When Trump asks the mirror on the wall “Who is the fairest of all?” he is narcissistically anticipating the answer in the image reflecting back to him. Today, we could just as well replace “fairest” with “racist” and the mirror’s response will be no different. Only the terms of endearment have shifted in their meaning, have been de-meaned. His Republican supporters are his handmaidens ensuring the mirror responds with the anticipated answer.