Trump Fans the Flames of a Racial Fire

Hard to disagree:

When it comes to race, Mr. Trump plays with fire like no other president in a century. While others who occupied the White House at times skirted close to or even over the line, finding ways to appeal to the resentments of white Americans with subtle and not-so-subtle appeals, none of them in modern times fanned the flames as overtly, relentlessly and even eagerly as Mr. Trump.

His attack on the Democratic congresswomen came on the same day his administration was threatening mass roundups of immigrants living in the country illegally. And it came just days after he hosted some of the most incendiary right-wing voices on the internet at the White House and vowed to find another way to count citizens separately from noncitizens despite a Supreme Court ruling that blocked him from adding a question to the once-a-decade census.

Republican lawmakers, by and large, did not rush to the president’s side on Sunday either, but neither did they jump forward to denounce him. Deeply uncomfortable as many Republicans are with Mr. Trump’s racially infused politics, they worry about offending the base voters who cheer on the president as a truth-teller taking on the tyranny of political correctness.

Only in the evening did Mr. Trump respond to the furor, saying that Democrats were standing up for colleagues who “speak so badly of our Country” and “whenever confronted” call adversaries “RACIST.”

At that point, Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman for Mr. Trump, responded to a request for comment, saying, “The president pointed out that many Democrats say terrible things about this country, which in reality is the greatest nation on Earth.” He did not explain why Mr. Trump told American-born lawmakers to “go back” to countries they were not from.

Other presidents have played racial politics or indulged in stereotypes. Secret tapes of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon show them routinely making virulently racist statements behind closed doors. Mr. Nixon’s Southern strategy was said to be aimed at disenchanted whites. Ronald Reagan was accused of coded racial appeals for talking so much about “welfare queens.” George Bush and his supporters highlighted the case of a furloughed African-American murderer named Willie Horton. Bill Clinton was accused of a racial play for criticizing a black hip-hop star.

But there were limits, even a generation ago, and most modern presidents preached racial unity over division. Mr. Johnson, of course, pushed through the most sweeping civil rights legislation in American history. Mr. Bush signed a civil-rights bill and denounced David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan leader, when he ran for governor of Louisiana as a Republican. His son, George W. Bush, made a point of visiting a mosque just days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to emphasize that America was not at war with Muslims. Barack Obama invited an African-American Harvard professor and the white police officer who mistakenly arrested him for a “beer summit.”

Mr. Trump’s history on race has been well documented, from his days as a developer settling a Justice Department lawsuit over discrimination in renting apartments to his public agitation during the Central Park Five case in New York. Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, later wrote that Mr. Trump openly disparaged others based on race, complaining, for example, that he did not want black men managing his money.

“Trump has not only always been a racist, but anyone around him who denies it, is lying,” Mr. O’Donnell said on Sunday. “Donald Trump makes racist comments all the time. Once you know him, he speaks his mind about race very openly.”

Mr. Trump, he said, regularly trafficked in racial stereotypes — Jews were good with money, blacks were lazy, Puerto Ricans dressed badly. “White people are Americans to Trump; everyone else is from somewhere else,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “He simply denies the reality of how we all immigrated to the United States.”

Mr. Trump propelled his way to the White House in part by promoting the false “birther” conspiracy theory that Mr. Obama was actually born in Africa, not Hawaii. He opened his presidential bid in 2015 with an attack on Mexican “rapists” coming across the border (although “some, I assume, are good people”) and later called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. He said an American-born judge of Mexican heritage could not be fair to him because of his ethnic background.

As president, he complained during meetings that became public that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” and said African visitors would never “go back to their huts.” He disparaged Haiti and some African nations with a vulgarity and said instead of immigrants from there, the United States should accept more from Norway. He said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a rally to save a Confederate monument that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., although he also condemned the neo-Nazis there.

He is only saying what others believe but are too afraid to say, he insists. And each time the flames roar and Mr. Trump tosses a little more accelerant on top. The fire may be hot, but that’s the way he likes it.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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