Just for the sake of argument, let’s give President Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. As we look back at the course of his campaign and presidency, let’s assume for a minute that the President is not a racist.
Trump took his first steps on the road to the White House during Barack Obama’s presidency. Trump was obviously well known at the time as a real estate mogul turned talk show host, so it was news when he began to question the constitutional legitimacy of Obama’s election. He doubted Obama’s citizenship, called for the President of the United States to produce his birth certificate, and routinely mentioned that he had news ready to break that would prove his theory. Trump’s critics often point to the birtherism movement as early proof of his racism, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he was just protecting the Constitution and the Office of the Presidency. Maybe he would’ve made those same accusations about a President whose skin wasn’t brown. We have no way of knowing, do we?
When he announced his presidential candidacy five years ago, few took him seriously. With that in mind, maybe he and his advisors were only making a political calculation to set him apart from a crowded field when they crafted his campaign around one major goal — ending immigration. Knowing that many other conservative voices were already pushing for that, Trump moved past the usual talking points. He told us that Mexican immigrants weren’t just coming to take our jobs, they were coming to threaten our safety. “When Mexico sends its people,” he said, “they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He qualified that statement with a phrase we’d hear from him again: “And some, I assume, are good people.” Maybe that speech wasn’t rooted in racism. Perhaps he was only trying to set himself apart from the rest of the Republican candidates. Maybe we shouldn’t assume he had ill intentions that time either.
On January 27, 2016, just seven days after taking the oath of office, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, more commonly known as the Muslim Travel Ban. This wasn’t in response to a specific incident in the world or an attack on the United States, but the enactment of another campaign promise. Trump had spent much of 2016 warning about threats from abroad, and no threat was greater, he told us, than that of radical Islamic terrorism. Most critics viewed this executive order as an attack on an entire culture, and yet another example of the president’s xenophobic ideas, but maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe President Trump actually believed that he was keeping America safe from a looming threat. Maybe he and his administration thought it was okay to keep law-abiding citizens from these seven nations out of the United States if that meant the terrorists weren’t getting in either. Perhaps his critics were overreacting. Again.
In August of 2017, white supremacists were among those gathered at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and chanting hateful rhetoric like “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” The protests themselves were problematic enough, but things changed when 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of anti-protesters. Perhaps the President wasn’t supporting the white supremacists when he refused to issue a direct condemnation of their actions and beliefs. Perhaps he was simply reserving judgment, knowing how powerful a president’s words can be. When he claimed that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” perhaps he was simply refusing to paint the conservative protesters with the same brush as the one individual who had committed the murder. Maybe it had nothing to do with white supremacy.
Much has been made of the President’s attitude towards foreigners, specifically foreigners with brown or black skin. (He never seemed to have a problem with his wife’s status as a European immigrant, for example.) A year into his presidency, in January of 2018, President Trump and some congressional leaders were discussing immigration policies. When it was suggested that a certain number of spots in the annual visa lottery should be set aside for applicants from Haiti and a handful of African nations, the President balked. “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole’ countries coming here?” he asked. “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” It was also reported that he thought the United States should get more immigrants from countries like Norway. It’s tempting to view this as further evidence that he prefers white skin to black, but maybe he was looking at things from a purely economic standpoint. Maybe skin color had nothing to do with it.
When Covid-19 began its spread across the United States, President Trump rarely referred to it by its scientific name or by the more common label, coronavirus. Instead he used the terms “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” or even “Chinese flu.” Maybe this wasn’t racism, though. Maybe he was just reminding us of the virus’s origin. When asked about the rise in incidents of harassment and hate crimes against Asian Americans, the President denied this, and further denied any influence his words might have had. When he responded to a reporter’s question about coronavirus testing by suggesting she “ask China” about its testing program, perhaps it was just coincidence that the reporter was CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, a Chinese-American reporter. Maybe the President didn’t realize to whom he was speaking.
The questioning of Jiang is just one in a string of possible coincidences. In the wake George Floyd’s murder last May, President Trump again withheld comment for several days, and he never seemed connected with the moment until the protests became violent. He tweeted a warning, saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” but he might only have been accidentally quoting the words of Miami police chief Walter Headley, a noted segregationist who said the same thing in 1967.
Two days later, after protests had neared the White House, Trump lauded the strength of the United States Secret Service. When he explained that protesters “would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs,” maybe he was only describing the dogs. Maybe he was unaware of the imagery his words evoked in anyone who’s ever studied — or lived through — the Civil Rights era in which attack dogs were routinely used against Black protesters. Maybe he didn’t know that generations of African-Americans still carry the psychic scars of those attacks and are still wary of dogs. Perhaps it was just a coincidence.
In the first week of June, continuing a three-year campaign of undoing progress made by President Obama, the Trump administration announced the elimination of a regulation meant to protect transgender patients from discrimination when seeking health care. On its surface, this was a disappointing setback, but what about the administration’s choice to make the announcement on the four-year anniversary of the Pulse night club shooting? Maybe just another coincidence. Maybe no one in the West Wing looked at the calendar.
In mid June the Trump campaign announced it would be holding its first rally since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. They could’ve selected any American city, and they could’ve chosen any date, so some were surprised that they went with Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19th. The combination of that city, the site of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in which hundreds of black Americans were slaughtered by white rioters, and that date, also known as Juneteenth, the date when slavery officially ended when word of the Emancipation Proclamation finally spread to Texas, almost seems intentional. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just another coincidence.
Not long after that, it was learned that President Trump’s reelection campaign had created an ad targeting its left-wing opposition and featuring an inverted red triangle, the same symbol the Nazi party used to identify political prisoners — those who had disagreed with the regime — in concentration camps. The Trump campaign argued that the red triangle is an Antifa symbol, so perhaps this was just an accident, not an adoption of Nazi propaganda. Maybe those who claim to see similarities between this administration and other fascist regimes are simply making irresponsible accusations.
It’s possible, I suppose, that all of this is a coincidence. It’s possible that each of these examples is simply an isolated incident that can be explained away with one explanation or another. Maybe we’re looking for things that aren’t really there.
But we all know that’s not the case. President Trump and his administration have demonstrated a consistent pattern of racist and homophobic actions (or inactions) that seem designed to send signals to the darkest corners of his base. It used to be that politicians would send these messages in what were called “dog whistles,” words or phrases the mainstream wouldn’t catch but would speak volumes to certain segments of America.
This White House no longer bothers with such subtlety; the messages are loud and clear. So you elected a Black president? Watch me undo everything he ever touched. Are you heartened that LGBTQ+citizens have gained new acceptance into mainstream American life? Excuse me while I trample on their rights on the anniversary of their darkest day. Have minorities gained too great a foothold in our society? Allow me to cast the Latinx community as criminals and Asian Americans as disease carriers. Let me use the violent imagery of the last century to attack African Americans in this one.
The dog whistles have been put away. This President speaks in grand gestures, stopping just short of planting a burning cross in the White House rose garden. It’s been said that we can never know what’s truly in another person’s heart, but in this case we don’t need to look that deep. His heart, whether it exists or not, is unimportant. President Trump has consistently and repeatedly told us and shown us who he is. It’s time we believe him. It’s time we remove him.