For some Americans, nothing President Trump says or does would prompt them to withdraw their support. Trump has been aware of this for a while; his infamous “I could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue” comment was an acknowledgment of that reality. In part, this is a function of the passion many people feel for Trump. In part, it’s a function of Trump’s having pushed past so many different boundaries already. Once you’re miles into the wilderness, what’s another 10 feet?
A handful of the people who fall into this camp happen to work about a block from Fifth Avenue at Fox News. And in the aftermath of revelations that Trump had referred to African countries and Haiti as “shitholes” on Thursday, they quickly offered rationalizations.
Tucker Carlson’s strategy was to suggest that Trump was simply saying what everyone was thinking — once he changed what Trump was saying.
“Today, as you doubtless heard, during immigration talks,” he said, “President Trump said something that almost every single person in America actually agrees with — an awful lot of immigrants come to this country from other places that aren’t very nice.”
This is not what Trump said, of course. In his statement last year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un didn’t say, “I have real questions about President Trump’s stability but expect to emerge victorious in our debate.” He said, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” There are important differences between those two things and framing one as the other is disingenuous.
On Fox’s “The Five,” host Jesse Watters took a different tack.
“This is how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar,” he said. “If you’re at a bar, and you’re in Wisconsin, and you think they’re bringing in a bunch of Haiti people, or El Salvadorians, or people from Niger, this is how some people talk. Is it graceful? No. Is it polite or delicate? Absolutely not. Is it a little offensive? Of course it is.”
This is a combination of the “Trump being Trump” defense and the “this is the way real people talk” defense, both of which we’ve heard scores of times since Trump announced his candidacy. It’s certainly true that, for many people, Trump’s willingness to say whatever he wants is appealing, granted that the things he wants to say often jibe with the things they want to hear.
Most presidents, though, don’t always tell Americans what they want to hear (even if they often do), and that’s particularly the case with comments that stoke racial tension — or are openly racist. Just as the presidency entails different job requirements, it is often understood to also entail different requirements in terms of how the president speaks. There’s a political motivation for that; calling Democrats idiots, for example, might hamper reelection efforts, even if it draws the base closer.
“But you know what?” Watters went on to say. “This doesn’t move the needle at all.”
That “move the needle” argument — that Trump’s base would stand by him — was also put forward by other Trump sympathizers in the immediate aftermath of the initial reports of Trump’s comments. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins spoke with White House staffers who predicted that “it will actually resonate with his base, not alienate it, much like his attacks on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem did.” Another former official with the administration rationalized the comments to BuzzFeed by pointing out that “there’s a large segment of voters who it resonates with as anti-P.C. ‘straight talk’.”
There are a lot of problems with this rationale. The first is that it assumes that Trump’s base will uniformly support a racist comment, which is a disservice to those supporters. The second is that it also assumes that the opinion of Trump voters is more important than the opinions of everyone else, and that it’s a wash if the rest of America sees its opinion of Trump erode as long as the opinions of his base don’t.
Most importantly, though, this is an abdication of what the presidency is supposed to be. After his election, Trump regularly called for Americans to unite around him, failing to recognize that the job of unity falls to the president, not the people. Trump’s campaign always had a significant demagogic component, centered on stoking prejudices and falsehoods, but he could theoretically have presided in a way that was more all-encompassing. He’s decided not to and instead has continued to foster political and cultural divides.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama took a different tack. In the immediate wake of 9/11, Bush called for an embrace of America’s Muslim community. Obama frequently discussed the need to address racial tensions and disparities. But that was not what all Americans wanted to hear, which gave conservative media space to be rewarded for saying more divisive things.
In 2015, Trump came along, stuffed with years of consuming that media, and said those things out loud on the campaign trail. That was a key reason his base rallied around him in the first place. It’s also why there was never much likelihood that Trump would actually embrace the unifying tactics of past presidents. Trump is loyal to those who like him, and those who like him like him because he says the things he “shouldn’t.” So he keeps saying them.
That’s precisely the “move the needle” argument, of course. But it’s offered here as criticism, not as an excuse.
There’s no rational case to be made for calling an entire continent and two countries neighboring the United States “shitholes.” Therefore, there’s no rational argument that can defend the use of that word. But defending what until now has seemed indefensible has been part of supporting Trump since the earliest days of his campaign.
On Friday morning, Trump threw the baby out with the bathwater, claiming on Twitter that he never used the word at all.
(This claim was quickly rebutted by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) who was in the room when Trump spoke.)
This denial, too, was classic Trump, offering all things to all people. Want to give him the benefit of the doubt? He said he didn’t say it, there you go. Want to assume he’s still the hard-talking, tell-it-like-it-is guy you’ll always defend? He admits he used tough language — there’s the guy you love.
The only people left in the lurch are, as is often the case, the people who rushed to defend him.