At a White House briefing on Wednesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to address this week’s great Twitter-born media controversy: A string of tweets in which African American ESPN anchor Jemele Hill called President Trump a “white supremacist,” among several other things:
Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
The height of white privilege is being able to ✌ignore✌his white supremacy, because it's of no threat to you. Well, it's a threat to me.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
A lot of outrage, a lot of support and a lot of commentary followed Hill’s evaluation. Included in that plume was a statement from ESPN, the sports network that has, through a number of well-publicized events, become a great target of conservative political ire.
The Post’s David Nakamura asked Sanders, in effect, what about this? “I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make and certainly something that, I think, is a fireable offense by ESPN,” said the press secretary. Thanks for the opinion, press secretary. But we’ll take this moment to stop and give thanks that no one in this White House — or any previous one — gets to make personnel calls at U.S. media outlets.
ESPN is notoriously inclined to take disciplinary action against people who somehow violate company policies and standards. Suspensions were long a reflex response to a whole swath of alleged wrongdoing. That the network, in the Hill case, could respond with nothing more than an “inappropriate” penalty flag speaks to the circumstances: The president of the United States has used racism and bigotry to blaze a path to the White House.
When asked about whether his reporters should address the bane of white supremacy on Twitter, Sudeep Reddy, a managing editor at Politico, responded in part that the goal should be to “convey fact rather than bringing opinions.” So let’s do just that. In his pre-presidential life, Trump did the following, as my colleague Dana Milbank wrote long ago:
Trump led the “birther” movement challenging President Obama’s standing as a natural-born American; used various vulgar expressions to refer to women; spoke of Mexico sending rapists and other criminals across the border; called for rounding up and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants; had high-profile spats with prominent Latino journalists and news outlets; mocked Asian accents; let stand a charge made in his presence that Obama is a Muslim and that Muslims are a “problem” in America; embraced the notion of forcing Muslims to register in a database; falsely claimed thousands of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey; tweeted bogus statistics asserting that most killings of whites are done by blacks; approved of the roughing up of a black demonstrator at one of his events; and publicly mocked the movements of New York Times (and former Washington Post) journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has a chronic condition limiting mobility.
Not to mention his demonization of the “Central Park Five,” the group of black and Latino teens wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger case. And that record, of course, excludes his recent presidential performance in the aftermath of the neo-Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville last month. Try though he did, Trump just couldn’t stick with a full-throated denunciation of the white supremacists.
“A bigot and a racist” was the verdict of Milbank back in December 2015. The Huffington Post came to a more comprehensive judgment, as the site placed a footnote on Trump-related stories: “Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.,” read the text.
As this blog recently noted, a critic at the time called the Huffington Post’s formulation “loaded terms.” As it turns out, they’re incontrovertible, too.
— Mathieu von Rohr (@mathieuvonrohr) August 18, 2017
My first cover for The New Yorker entitled "Blowhard." pic.twitter.com/OjnjELalVP
— David Plunkert (@plunkert) August 17, 2017
According to the Anti-Defamation League, racism doesn’t equal white supremacy. “As a full-fledged ideology, white supremacy is far more encompassing than simple racism or bigotry. Most white supremacists today further believe that the white race is in danger of extinction due to a rising ‘flood’ of non-whites, who are controlled and manipulated by Jews, and that imminent action is need to ‘save’ the white race.” Whether or not you believe that Trump is among this group, he has surely animated it. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote in the Atlantic, “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”
What’s really “outrageous” about Hill’s tweets is that she has landed in the right conceptual neighborhood, as “inappropriate” as that may seem to her bosses.