It doesn’t matter.
Trump is a racist. That doesn’t hinge on whether he uttered one particular epithet, no matter how ugly it is. It’s about the totality of his presidency, and after 18 months you can see his racial animus throughout his policy initiatives whether you hear it on tape or not.
Over the course of his career, well before he took office, Trump’s antipathy toward people of color has been plainly evident. In the ’70s, his real estate company was the subject of a federal investigation that found his employees had secretly marked the paperwork of minority apartment rental applicants with codes such as “C” for “colored.” After black and Latino teenagers were charged with sexually assaulting a white woman in Central Park, he took out full-page ads in New York City newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. He never backtracked or apologized when the teenagers’ convictions were overturned. He championed birtherism, and wouldn’t disavow the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya until the end of his 2016 presidential campaign. As president, he’s targeted African American athletes for criticism, whether it’s ranting, “Get that son of a bitch off the field,” in reference to professional football players silently protesting police brutality or tweeting that:
Calling African American Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) a “low IQ person” is now a routine bit at his political rallies. He was quoted referring to Haiti, El Salvador and various African nations as “shithole” countries. He announced his campaign in 2015 by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Later that year, he called for the United States to implement a “total and complete” Muslim ban.
After taking office, he hired xenophobes such as Stephen Miller — an architect of the ban, whose hostility toward immigrants is so stark, and hypocritical, that his uncle excoriated him this week in an essay for Politico Magazine, writing of Miller and Trump that “they repeat the insults and false accusations of earlier generations against these refugees to make them seem less than human.”
I could go on. The point is that Trump’s view of nonwhites is out in the open. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci notes, there’s every reason “to believe that an n-word tape wouldn’t torpedo Trump’s presidency”; there’s no indication his supporters “will turn against him because he used a racial slur.” Trump’s words and deeds over time have demonstrated his racism — it doesn’t hinge on being outed, Paula Deen-style, by a tape of him using the word. Racism hardly ever does.
I’m not saying it would be okay for Trump to use any variation of the n-word — in jest, in anger, singing along to the lyrics of a song, with or without the hard “R.” But the feverish speculation about whether he ever deployed the term wrongly implies that a verdict on his racist character turns on its use. What matters more about Trump are the positions he’s taken and the policy choices he’s made that harm communities of color. In his first year as president, Trump evolved from mere interpersonal racist to racist enabler when he proclaimed there were “very fine people, on both sides” when white supremacists and anti-racist protesters converged in Charlottesville last year. Jeff Sessions, a senator from Alabama who, three decades ago, was denied a federal judgeship by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee over concerns that he was a racist, was installed by Trump as attorney general.
Since assuming that role, Sessions has worked to undermine consent decrees meant to restrain racially abusive police departments and explicitly articulated the administration’s intent to use family separation to deter immigration. The Department of Education, under Secretary Betsy DeVos, is dismissing hundreds of civil rights complaints, supposedly in the name of efficiency. Trump hired Manigault Newman as a liaison to black constituent groups based on their reality TV relationship and, according to him, her willingness to say “GREAT things” about him, despite almost universal criticism of her appointment and subsequent work by African American Republicans and Democrats.
Being a racist — which entails belief in a fixed racial hierarchy and the power to act upon that belief in commerce, government or social spaces — is not now, and never has been, about one word or one slip of the tongue. It is about the ability of those in power to use public and private resources to enforce a racial hierarchy, whether that means having black people arrested for sitting in Starbucks, refusing to hire or promote qualified black job applicants or staffing a presidential administration with people who tolerate or encourage white nationalists. Trump’s statements and his approach to governance suggest he believes in a set racial hierarchy, and the possible existence of a hyped tape doesn’t change that. So far, and as far as I know, no one’s produced audio of white nationalist participants in last Sunday’s Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington using the n-word. Presumably, by the logic of some Trump defenders, that would mean there’s no proof they’re racist, either.
If American public discourse on race continues to revolve around a game of “gotcha,” with sentiments and smoking guns, divorced from an acknowledgment of how racists use their power, we won’t make any progress, during this administration or any other.