The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What makes President Trump casually dismiss black pain? White rage.

President Trump's response to the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger is causing an uproar. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

White anger is the dark matter of the La David Johnson story. Ostensibly, that rage doesn’t appear to be why President Trump has spent a week disrespecting grieving black women, specifically Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), the congresswoman whom she considers to be like family. But while we can’t see it in the daily news coverage, we see its effects: White rage’s gravity is warping not only what should be a solemn, yet perfunctory, duty for a president but also pulling whiteness back to the center of a story that should be about only a young black widow and her two children, with a third on the way.

We’ve been talking too much about white people and their anger since Trump started running for president, really. The white resentment that unmasked itself during the Obama era, sparked by the tea party and Trump’s birther crusade, had been pretty obvious even before the predominantly white media devoted legions of stories to it over the past couple of years in a fit of “Hillbilly Elegy” curiosity. It seemed apparent to people of color that this was the mysterious malady that caused people to support Trump; the press, in the manner of Christopher Columbus, would eventually discover it, too. Much less energy was devoted to, say, examining black anger about racial injustice and other issues. That’s partly why the president was able to get so many (mostly white) Americans to believe the fiction that kneeling athletes were Betsy Ross blasphemers. Those attitudes give Trump license to make targets of outspoken sports commentators and various members of Congress — especially if they’re women of color, his favorite opponents. The act of not believing black folks or performing confusion about our anger has social currency as well, since it makes it look as though we are all crying wolf. Even when we’re talking about a pregnant military widow, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire American story.

I don’t seek to invalidate the animus of Trump voters, much as it is often directed unfairly at people who look like me. What I want is to decenter white cultural rage. There are additional, and more justified, reasons to be angry in America — such as the president calling you a liar right after you’ve buried your soldier husband, killed in action for reasons yet to be determined.

What do black Americans have to lose? Under Trump, we’ve already lost a lot.

Sgt. La David Johnson was one of four Army soldiers who died on Oct. 4 in Niger, reportedly the victims of an Islamic State ambush. I qualify that a bit only because the Pentagon doesn’t seem to know why these men died — especially Johnson, who was separated from the rest and not found for 48 hours after the initial attack. Myeshia Johnson was not allowed to see any part of her husband’s body, and Saturday’s funeral was closed-casket. There are very serious questions for the Trump administration to answer here. That’s even before we consider how badly Trump later treated her during his condolence call, apparently not remembering La David Johnson’s name and telling her callously that “he knew what he signed up for.”

On Monday morning, Myeshia Johnson went on the record. Recounting what the president said, the widow told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “it made me cry cause I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.” She also confirmed the damning account that both Wilson and La David Johnson’s custodial mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, had given of the phone conversation she had with the president. “Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated,” she said during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “What she said was 100 percent correct. It was Master Sgt. Neil, me, my aunt, my uncle and the driver and Ms. Wilson in the car, the phone was on speakerphone. Why would we fabricate something like that?”

Trump, as if by instinct, retorted with a tweet indicating that she had lied: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!” It isn’t as if we couldn’t see this coming, what with candidate Trump’s vilification of another Gold Star family of color last summer, something that may have actually gained him fans.

It is also the latest chapter in America’s long history of mistreating African American military veterans, alive or dead. As Peter C. Baker noted in November in the New Yorker, the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama released a report about lynching shortly after the election that indicated that “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans” of America’s wars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Baker wrote that those veterans, returning home from fighting overseas, understandably felt more of an entitlement to equal treatment under the law, and the lynchings were intended to disabuse them of that notion.

Lynching was the most violent form of racial denigration in that era. But racial denigration, that act by which bigots strip any respectability or humanity away from black folks to reinforce their false racial hierarchy, has never gone away. And Trump has such a gift for it that he used it to win the White House. He was elected by a swell of bigotry, and so he serves his masters with aplomb. It may be the only consistent thing he does.

While he didn’t break out a noose for the Johnsons or Wilson, he did sic his dogs on them through his continued insistence that they are lying. Already, an Illinois man is being investigated for a Facebook post threatening to lynch Wilson. Knowing that his base either is racist or willing to vote in a man who would metastasize white supremacy, Trump felt secure putting a black Gold Star family in the crosshairs to escape accountability.

Donald Trump criticized my silence. He knows nothing about true sacrifice.

Asked toward the end of the interview Monday whether she had anything to say to the president, Myeshia Johnson said, “No,” then paused a bit before adding, “I don’t have nothing to say to him.” You should watch it in its entirety, if for no other reason than to see this moment. Her anger and hurt was palpable throughout the interview, but perhaps none more so than right then. You’ll see a woman who clearly can’t believe that she has to deal with this nonsense.

These are surely the worst days of her life. But rather than talking purely about her husband and any righteous rage she may have over the circumstances of his death, she has to talk about Trump and what he is doing to her. She may even be screaming inside over the fact that this maddening episode will always be a part of La David Johnson’s story. The president could’ve prevented that by trying to act like a human being for the five minutes it took to make that call, but alas.

While we don’t yet understand why La David Johnson was left behind to die, we understand why his family has been treated like trash. A fallen soldier’s family is being forced to make space for the president’s petty grievances in their time of bereavement, all because, even at an unconscious level, America accepts white anger. Even when viewed as wrong, it is at least tolerated more than the fury of black folks. This has been a long con by conservatives, dating back to before the birth of the Southern Strategy after Jim Crow, and it is paying out for them now.

The president knows that white resentment is a perfect fit for his pugnacious politics, so he can continue reflexively picking fights that wiser men ignore. He has cover from his acolytic base, who see the disrespect and hatred they have nurtured for so long exploding into presidential action. What appear to be confounding, unforced errors borne of his inherent cruelty are also chunks of red meat for his base. The satisfaction that Trump derives from feeding them clearly matters more to him than the outrage of a black war widow. If that’s disturbing, consider that it makes some political sense for him to behave like this. Whose fault is that?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Equal Justice Initiative as the Equal Justice Institute.

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