On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by nine and a half million votes and became the country’s first African-American President. In 2016, Donald Trump, an unapologetic racist, lost the popular ballot by three million votes but, thanks to the antediluvian rules that still govern our voting system, succeeded Obama in the Oval Office. Understanding the role of racism and its persistence in this dismal pivot will be as central to our understanding of our times as it was to our understanding of Reconstruction.
What’s curious is just how many people have resisted seeing squarely Trump’s racism, his shrewd exploitation of animosity, hatred, and division for political advantage. Trump is hardly a man of subtle concealment. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to enact policies to give freedmen land, a decent education, or voting rights resided, first and foremost, in “his inability to picture Negroes as men.” Trump’s hostility toward minorities and his capacity to signal that hostility to others has never been a secret. This quality is central to his politics and his appeal.
The biography is plain. As real-estate developers in the nineteen-seventies, Trump and his father did what they could to keep people of color out of their buildings in Brooklyn and Queens. These slimy stratagems attracted the attention of the Department of Justice. As a tabloid big mouth eager to enhance his peculiar brand of outrageous celebrity, Trump paid for ad space in the New York papers to call for the execution of the so-called Central Park Five. Long after they were vindicated and given a collective award of forty-one million dollars, Trump refused to apologize or reconsider.
Trump always made a point of forming “friendships” with Don King, Mike Tyson, and a few other black celebrities, but the fraud was obvious. As Kip Brown, a driver who worked at one of Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City, told Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker, “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor. . . . I was a teen-ager, but I remember it: they put us all in the back.”
The foundational cause of Trump’s fledgling political career was not tax policy or the nuclear deal with Iran; it was the promotion of “birtherism,” the conspiracy theory that Obama was lying about his citizenship and place of origin. After the election, a ban on Muslim immigration was among Trump’s top priorities. His ongoing cruelties directed at men, women, and children at the southern border is a naked attempt to strike fear into would-be migrants throughout Mexico and Central America and to arouse the approval of white voters. The President’s views are clear: black athletes who dare to protest police violence are “sons of bitches”; African countries are “shitholes”; and there are some “fine people” among the bigoted thugs who carried tiki torches and chanted “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville.
Just last week, the President invited to the White House leading members of the far-right social-media crowd, including one “Carpe Donktum,” who recently made a nasty altered video of Joe Biden; Bill Mitchell, who ladles out the latest QAnon conspiracy theories; the oppo-research operative James O’Keefe III; and Ali Alexander, who, like the President’s own son, recently shared a tweet that called into question Kamala Harris’s racial background. A sterling bunch. At the meeting, Trump expressed the full knowledge that cyber-fuelled hatred and racism had helped him win the election. He honored the group with a White House invitation in the hopes that it will be there for him again in 2020. “The crap you think of is unbelievable!” he told them in bemused admiration. These were his people.
And, like a self-infatuated child, Trump said of his own tweets, “I used to watch it like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty.”
Over the weekend, Trump put out a beauty, telling his sixty million Twitter followers that four members of Congress—Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib—four Democrats on the left, four women of color, should “go back” to the countries “from which they came” if they were going to keep on criticizing him.
This was a threat of the ugliest variety, and one with a malodorous history. And a President of the United States was making it. At a press conference Monday, Ocasio-Cortez said that when she visited Washington, D.C., as a girl, her father showed her the Capitol, the reflecting pool, the Lincoln Memorial, and other sites of American democracy and told her, “This belongs to all of us.”
“This weekend that very notion was challenged,” Ocasio-Cortez said. This was precisely the point: Trump was saying that these four women of color did not belong. He would never have said something similarly threatening to a white critic. In his conception of American-ness, white people belong; the rest are contingent.
Asked by reporters if his message had been racist, Trump, of course, neither apologized nor retreated. He amplified his message. “If you’re not happy here, then you can leave,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, if you hate our country, if you’re not happy here, you can leave. And that’s what I say all the time.”
“That’s what I said in a tweet, which I guess some people think is controversial—a lot of people love it, by the way,” he went on. “A lot of people love it. But if you’re not happy in the U.S., if you’re complaining all the time, very simply, you can leave. You can leave right now. Come back if you want. Don’t come back. That’s O.K., too. But if you’re not happy, you can leave.”
A lot of people love it. This might as well be Trump’s campaign slogan.
Trump can hardly run a reëlection campaign on policy triumphs. His polling results show him trailing the top four Democrats: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. And so he will sling as much filth as possible and hope his base comes out in sufficient numbers. This is what he knows how to do. This time around he will shout about “socialism” and “You can leave.” He will make ugly caricatures of “the Squad”—the four members of Congress whom he targeted this weekend. “I hear the way she talks about Al Qaeda,” Trump said of Omar. “Al Qaeda has killed many Americans. She said, ‘You could hold your chest out.’ ” Ilhan Omar, of course, has said no such thing.
Reaction in the Republican leadership has been, at best, nervous. By the pusillanimous standards of the G.O.P., you could almost count Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, as positively courageous. Graham went on Fox News and called the four congresswomen a “bunch of communists.” Hardly surprising. He has been bowing and scraping to Trump since the election. But he also gently counselled Trump to “aim higher.”
Trump, of course, was having none of it. “I disagree with Lindsey on that,” he said. “He said, ‘Aim higher, shoot higher.’ What am I going to do, wait until we get somebody else in a higher position, higher office? These are people that hate our country.” In fact, at their press conference, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar, and Pressley all took the high road, imploring the public not to take the bait—Trump’s race-baiting—and focus on the issues, from the climate crisis to income inequality.
Republicans and Independents, evangelicals, and many others who might have voted for Trump in 2016 will eventually have to ask themselves whether it is possible to go on believing that he is a man of sufficient character to hold the Presidency. They will have to ask themselves what it means to overlook his racism and what this says about them. How can they believe it is possible to support a racist and escape that in themselves? Or will they pronounce themselves, as the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, did, “not concerned”?
The present moment is never fixed, or not for long. History is in the hands of members of Congress who have the option to collude or impeach, go along or resist; it is in the hands of citizens who can vote or stay at home. In 1989, we lived the illusion of unstoppable democratic advance. Democratic values have since receded. In 2008, we enjoyed the illusion of racial progress. Today, Donald Trump is in the White House.
“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” Du Bois wrote in his great study, “Black Reconstruction in America.” Then came the Second Reconstruction, better known as the civil-rights movement. Now we are where we are. What’s next is entirely up to us.
A previous version of this post incorrectly described the ownership of the Showboat casino.