Three days after President Trump called LeBron James and CNN’s Don Lemon stupid, the anchor accused the president of racism.
Monday night was not the first time Lemon called Trump a racist. Nor was the previous Friday the first time Trump belittled the intelligence of a black critic of his administration, or Lemon specifically.
But Lemon’s polemic on “CNN Tonight” felt especially personal. It combined the anchor’s reaction to the latest insult with a sort of bibliography of Trump’s previous attacks on black public figures, culminating in a declaration that the leader of the United States is a morally repulsive blight on American society.
“As a journalist, I don’t really like being the story here,” Lemon said. “But because of how important it is for each of us to stand up for what is right and what is decent, I’m going to tell you exactly how I feel, starting right now.”
He spoke for the next nine minutes.
He first recapped the events of the past few days, in case anyone had not been following: On Friday, Trump had watched a rerun of an interview between Lemon and James to talk about a nonprofit school James had just opened, during which the NBA star told the anchor: “Our president is kind of trying to divide us.”
As Trump critiques go, this was mild stuff. James had said worse about the president. (So had Lemon, for that matter.) But Trump’s response, in a tweet he sent shortly before midnight, went straight for the worst superlatives. He called Lemon “the dumbest man on television,” and James a close runner-up.
“The president has called a lot of people stupid,” Lemon told his viewers. “Some of those people are white. But I would just like to note that referring to an African American as dumb — remember this is America — is one of the oldest canards of America’s racist past and present: that black people are of inferior intelligence.”
As Philip Bump has demonstrated in The Washington Post, Trump routinely called his critics stupid before he won election. He mostly refrained from the insults for several months afterward but has lately begun using them again — and now tends to level them against black critics, mainly Lemon and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
“Notice a pattern?” Lemon asked Monday. “The president constantly denigrates people of color, and women, too.”
To his list of evidence, Lemon added Trump’s past embrace of a conspiracy theory that Barack Obama, “America’s first black president,” was born in Kenya and faked his U.S. citizenship. Lemon reminded his viewers that Trump once called certain participants at a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville “very fine people.” He recalled Trump’s repeated attacks on black NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to protest what they saw as institutional racism.
He played clip after clip after clip of Trump at his rallies, calling Waters “low-IQ.”
“Let me not mince words here,” Lemon said. “This president trafficks in racism and is fueled by bullying.”
“President Trump is trying to divide in a divide-and-conquer strategy,” he continued, “and here’s how it goes: He divides by race and tries to conquer decency by smearing and besmirching the truth and the people who fight to uphold it.”
And he asked:
“Is this who we really are? The overwhelmingly negative response to his unfair and unkind attack on a good man, LeBron James, shows America rejects what he is peddling. Most of America, anyway. Not all of America.”
And the response to Trump’s tweet really had been furious, with condemnations issuing from celebrities in sports, entertainment and politics. Even a spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump praised James’s charity work and mentioned “responsible online behavior” in a statement some imagined was a subtle rebuke to her husband.
“But what about the impact his policies have on those without a platform?” Lemon asked his viewers, eight minutes into his broadcast. “The parents who can’t honestly tell their children to be proud of the president of the United States. The people of color who are attacked by their fellow citizens, who feel emboldened to be publicly racist, because the president is.”
Because the president is, Lemon said. And again, he had called Trump a racist before — months earlier, in fact.
And the president had called black men stupid before, for that matter. And there is probably no reason to think that Trump’s latest insult or Lemon’s response will mark an end to that pattern.
But as he concluded his broadcast, Lemon at least called for one.
“Will the country stand up for them?” he asked. “We, the decent and truly patriotic people who really love America and believe in its greatness, have to. Because clearly Donald Trump won’t.”
The White House has not responded to a request for comment on Lemon’s speech.