A variety of arguments have been raised in defense of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump by a small but clearly devoted band.
One questions whether Trump's caught-on-tape comments matter. Trump, these backers say, is not running to become a moral role model. Another attempts to acknowledge the lewd nature of Trump's comments but minimizes their meaning. This would include those, who, like Trump, view his claims that he can kiss and grab women by their genitals at will because he is a star, as “locker room talk,” not a man bragging about sexual assault. But more recently, a third argument appears to have gained traction. That would be the hip-hop-artists-and-Beyoncé-say-this-stuff-all-the-time claim. And as such, this argument says, Trump's comments are neither uncommon nor unforgivable.
There is a problem with each of these claims. But as much has been said about the first and the second, let's focus on the last. The two are not comparable. The idea is illogical. And it is run through with the racial stereotypes and group suspicion that the Republican establishment often publicly disavows. Let's dissect this a bit further, shall we?
This week, former New York lieutenant governor and conservative political commentator Betsy McCaughey regaled CNN viewers with a convoluted claim. She said Hillary Clinton's critique of Trump's comments is hypocritical and probably calculating because Beyoncé is one of Clinton's favorite performers. And some of Beyoncé's songs include, as McCaughey put it, the f-word, the b-word, the p-word and other “bawdy” terms that makes her avoid and abhor “rap” music.
McCaughey certainly does not stand alone in her claim. This weekend, CNN aired similar ideas by Stacy Washington, a black Trump supporter and host of the conservative talk radio show “Stacy on the Right.” Along with criticizing Clinton on matters related to policy, email management and the deadly 2012 events in Benghazi, Libya, Washington said:
The Trump tape “sounds a lot like hip-hop music from today … the kind of stuff that people blare from their cars. That's the culture we are in. These candidates are a reflection of who we are as Americans, and if we are not going to be outraged by the hip-hop music, the comments people make directly to women . . . this is the culture as it stands. I can't be outraged about one part and not the other.”
Washington also described Trump's comments as unacceptable but no worse than anything Bill Clinton has allegedly done.
Trump supporters Ben Carson and his political adviser Armstrong Williams, who are black, and Katrina Pierson, who describes herself as biracial, have all said similar things in recent days. To be clear, this idea does not somehow become more accurate or rational because of the race or identity of the person who expresses them.
There is much about this argument that can be quickly dispatched, after reasonable people stop laughing. For starters, the so-called b-, p- and f-words have been known to appear in the lyrics of all sorts of music for some time. Beyoncé is most definitely not a rap artist. Her lyrics refer to consensual sex acts. A number of hip-hop and other artists have, in fact, criticized Trump's use of vulgar and offensive language in the political arena, and what they consider his exclusionary policy suggestions built on a foundation of group suspicion — in serious and humorous ways that we cannot publish here. They have done so this week and in the past.
Finally, despite an onstage Kanye West rant, Beyoncé — nor any of the other mostly black artists that Trump's defenders would like to blame but probably cannot name — is not seeking to become president in 2017. Beyoncé has not run a campaign built on the idea that despite never holding public office, wrangling a public budget, or managing the details of national security, public health and safety, she can govern with high self-regard and vague plans — including calls to deport entire groups and bar others from entering the country. Trump has.
And that's why it is all the more important to examine the way and what he thinks.
That's all true, at the surface of a very murky thought pool. There is more when you dive in.
Some portion of these claims is linked to a long and inauspicious history. In the 1500s, the pope ordered one of Michelangelo's students to paint loincloth over the nude figures the famed artist had placed in the Sistine Chapel. The figures were, to some, vulgar and likely to inspire dangerously lascivious thoughts, which could impair public safety in Italy and beyond. Similar concerns were expressed in the 1860s when some denizens of the art- and passion-loving Paris were aghast at the nude and unashamed woman captured in Manet's “Olympia” and displayed publicly at an annual event. In the 1920s, the nightclub dispatches of writers like Lois “Lipstick” Long were, to some, responsible for promoting the allegedly dissolute lifestyle of flappers, making them the envy and aim of young women everywhere. In the 1930s, it was the American-born Paris-dwelling Henry Miller's “Tropic of Cancer.” In the 1950s, it was Elvis's gyrating hips, and in the 1980s and 1990s, the music of 2 Live Crew and other groups.
It's not that any of these works had no influence at all. That, too, would be an illogical claim. But the predictions that the ruination of mankind would follow have, indeed, proven false.
In the United States, the claim that music, particularly genres dominated by black Americans, influences pop culture is factual to a certain degree. So, too, are claims that black art is often stolen or borrowed, no credit given. But any attempt to play down or shift the conversation from Trump's bragging about his ability to forcibly touch women to the language and content of hip-hop is not based in fact. The b-, p- and f-words are common in hip-hop, as are certain misogynistic concepts, but language, much less boasting, about forcible sexual activity is not.
This is. Black culture and certainly black men remain so linked to some Americans' notions of crime, danger and lewdness that they are considered one and the same. Those who employ this comparison — whether intentional or not — lean on the enduring strength of these stereotypes.
And that is what makes this Trump defense, in some ways, the political and arguably less dangerous cousin of Charles Stuart's 1989 claim that a “black gunman with a raspy voice” had forced his way into Stuart's car, fatally shot Stuart's pregnant wife, and seriously injured Stuart but left him alive. The description prompted what some reporters rather politely describe as a “crackdown,” in which black men were stopped, searched and arrested — out and out targeted — in connection with the crime. Many did not meet Stuart's description of the killer beyond being black men. Still, some city leaders and residents cheered. The young, white couple, a fur store worker and his lawyer wife, and their prematurely delivered son, who lived only 17 days, were seen as victims of urban anarchy. Police arrested a black man with a criminal record, putting him in a lineup in front of Stuart.
Three days later, Stuart jumped to his death from a bridge when it became clear that one of his brothers had told police that the brothers had worked together to commit the crime. The details of Stuart's initial story, in many ways implausible, were, in part, rendered seemingly true because the shooting occurred in a high-crime area with lots of black residents. Stuart grew up in Revere, a Boston area city where a resident told the New York Times in 1989, “you will notice no blacks live.” This was the kind of community where the idea that only a black criminal was animal enough to shoot a visibly pregnant woman in the head was not exactly uncommon.
We all know that, since then, there have been many similar efforts to obscure guilt by the same means.
Blaming hip-hop and Beyoncé to deflect from Trump's comments is part of that same national predisposition — that inclination or need to attribute the worst of that which surrounds us or frightens us to black people, culture, life and art. There are many Americans — particularly those enamored by Trump's politically incorrect and, therefore, to them, laudable speech — who find any argument about the pervasive and sometimes implicit nature of bias nonsensical.
This raises the question that if black music and culture have so coarsened America that Trump's comments are de rigueur, then what has the entirety of the Trump campaign done to the nation? One cannot claim the first without acknowledging the possibility of the latter.