We shouldn’t need a tape.
That, as many have written and tweeted, should be obvious by now: Audio of President Trump saying the n-word isn’t necessary to know he’s racist. Before Omarosa Manigault Newman resurrected the rumor of the recording, we’d seen enough, from the revolting response to Charlottesville all the way back to birtherism, and now that Manigault Newman has turned from crony to critic, we’re seeing more. Manigault Newman is “not smart,” Trump said Monday morning, leaping to his go-to insult for nonwhite enemies. She’s a “lowlife,” he added later. Then, on Tuesday, he called her a “dog.”
So, no, we don’t need a tape. But that hasn’t stopped many of the Trump’s detractors from wishing for one all the same. And the reason for their eagerness says a lot about the state of American society under a president whose staffers snoop on each other for protection.
Tapes are a recurring theme in the Trump administration; so far, it seems everyone has recorded the commander in chief except the one person — Barack Obama — he accused of it. Manigault Newman has tapes, Michael Cohen has tapes, many Americans refuse to budge from their belief that the Russians have “kompromat,” or compromising information, on Trump that includes a particularly infamous tape. The “Access Hollywood” tape, once upon an oh-so-distant time, looked likely to destroy any chance he had to lead the country.
Manigault Newman herself articulated the obvious reason so many people in Trump’s inner circle keep their eyes, ears and, uh, spy pens trained on their compatriots: “You have to have your own back because otherwise you’ll look back and you’ll see 17 knives in your back.” No one is loyal, and everyone lies. Only incontrovertible evidence can stand up against whatever an intra-administration adversary may throw at you should things go sour. And the threat of reprisal is real; Manigault Newman captured it. On tape.
The public’s interest in these tapes, though, is less clear. Sure, some of the recordings might matter in court someday, but others — like the n-word tape, or like many on the long list of incriminating recordings that television actor Tom Arnold has sworn to track down — promise only to confirm what’s already apparent.
But maybe confirmation is exactly what we’re looking for. The White House lies regularly, and when it’s not lying it’s at least spinning. We’re suffering whiplash from our collective plunge into a post-truth presidency, and something as stubborn and physical as a tape offers stabilization. A recording reassures Trump critics that they’ve been right all along, and more than that, it inspires the optimistic notion that, up against the sort of evidence that’s hardest to contradict, the rest of the country will finally start to see along with them.
It won’t. That’s not only because Sarah Huckabee Sanders could say the tape was tampered with, or because Trump’s backers would probably believe her. It’s because in a post-truth presidency and a post-truth country, it’s not only a matter of our inability to agree on individual facts and individual fictions. It’s also about the inevitable extension of that inability: Americans live in two totally separate realities, where one group’s good guys are the other group’s bad guys, and where Trump either augurs the disintegration of everything admirable in America or is the beginning of a better, brighter era ahead.
America knows Trump is racist, and his base continues to approve of him anyway. America knows he has catered to Russia at every turn, and his base continues to approve of him anyway, discounting the investigation into election interference as unimportant or a witch hunt. America knew during the election that he was a credibly accused sexual assaulter — and there was a tape — and it elected him anyway.
We don’t need a tape, not one bit. But even if we had one, it wouldn’t make much of a difference.