President Trump does not believe that people — that white men like himself — should have to apologize for their public displays of misogyny or racism. But this isn’t simply because he doesn’t want to give ground to critics out of stubbornness or a fear of displaying weakness.
Rather, the refusal to apologize for these things is itself a political statement, even a statement of values. And you can bet that many of his supporters hear it in precisely this way.
The Post has a remarkable piece of reporting today that gets inside Trump’s refusal to admit error about anything, ever. Trump insists the response to Hurricane Maria was impeccable, even though nearly 3,000 people died. He asserts that firing his former FBI director in an effort to obstruct an investigation into himself was correct, even though it led to a special counsel and has put him in serious legal and/or political jeopardy.
Trump’s aides believe this is largely rooted in his penchant for nonstop salesmanship and hyperbole, and his certainty that his voters will swallow whatever he tells them. As the Post piece puts it, Trump “tells senior aides that his supporters will believe his version of events.”
This once again displays Trump’s seething contempt for his own voters’ intelligence. But beyond this, on certain occasions when this happens, something even uglier than that is at work. The Post piece contains this revelation:
He has also complained that aides publicly admitted mistakes earlier this year over their handling of allegations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was emotionally and physically abusive toward his two ex-wives. “You should have never apologized,” he told a group of communications aides, according to two people. “You don’t ever apologize.”
You don’t ever apologize, even for failing to perform due diligence on a very senior administration official’s repeated alleged incidents of domestic abuse. But why don’t you ever apologize?
Bob Woodward’s book, “Fear,” provides insight into Trump’s instincts in this regard. Trump’s highest profile offer of something approaching an apology came after he blamed “many sides” for the white supremacist violence and murder in Charlottesville. Under pressure from aides, Trump then gave a second speech condemning anti-black racism more directly, decrying the “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”
But as Woodward recounts, Trump privately chafed at doing this. When a top adviser showed him a draft of that second speech, Trump said: “This doesn’t feel right to me.” The adviser concluded, as Woodward puts it, that Trump didn’t want to “bend to political correctness.”
This reluctance to bend to political correctness was also on display at another very critical moment: After the news broke during the campaign that Trump had been caught on the “Access Hollywood” video boasting of committing sexual assault with impunity. With his campaign in temporary collapse, Trump did release a video message apologizing, albeit in a tone that had the air of a forced confession.
But Woodward’s reporting suggests that this didn’t remotely reflect his real sentiments. Woodward recounts a remarkable episode in which Trump and his advisers debated whether he should do a TV interview and reiterate his apology. His advisers handed him language in which he would admit that his vile language (which included boasting about grabbing women by the “p—y”) was “not acceptable for a president.”
But Trump exploded. “I can’t do this,” he raged. “This is weak. You guys are weak.” Once elected, Trump even took to suggesting that the voice on the tape wasn’t his.
Trump will not capitulate to ‘political correctness’
Trump’s refusal to capitulate to the forces of “political correctness” led him to refuse to back off amid multiple other high-profile displays of racism and bigotry. Trump refused to admit error, and even doubled down, after falsely claiming that “thousands and thousands” of U.S. Muslims had celebrated 9/11.
Then there’s Trump’s birtherism. After spending years spreading the racist conspiracy theory that the nation’s first black president didn’t belong in the White House because he isn’t American, Trump finally admitted the truth. But he falsely blamed Hillary Clinton for hatching the claim and took credit for forcing Obama to reveal his birth certificate, like a sheriff who had thrown a perp against the wall and shaken loose his papers.
Trump views racial discord as a positive — the more of it, the better. The whole point is the deliberate provocation of racial tensions, both out of genuine racist conviction and the belief that it tightens his political bond with his supporters. Trump pardoned racist Joe Arpaio as “a way of pleasing his political base.” He revived his attacks on football players for the act of protesting racism because this “revs up his political base.” After Trump deliberately stoked racial discord after Charlottesville, Stephen K. Bannon subsequently said it would be a political winner for the president.
The refusal to capitulate to demands for contrition for the original racist or misogynist sentiment isn’t an act of stubbornness. It is active validation of the sentiment itself. The refusal to back down is itself the political statement.
The political theorist Martha Nussbaum has urged us to see the debate over “political correctness” in light of the cosmopolitanism first elaborated by the ancients, that is, the idea that through reason we can come to treat one another, regardless of background, as having equal worth by virtue of our respective “moral affiliation” with “rational humanity.” Nussbaum argues that the sneering at “political correctness” really amounts to a declaration that we do not have any “duty” to put in the intellectual, political and societal work necessary to counter or ease “racism, sexism, and other divisive passions” that militate against tolerance and humanism, in ourselves or in others.
What Trump basically declares again and again, in one form or another, is that those who demand resistance to our basest and most divisive and hateful instincts should just shut up and stop ruining all the fun. Instead, by all means, go ahead and revel in them — without apology.