In all the drama around Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, you may have missed a truly extraordinary incident, one that reveals a tremendous amount about how we talk about race in politics today, particularly how conservatives think about it.

Let me briefly summarize the series of events, and then we’ll consider what it means. The context is that in his prepared testimony Cohen called President Trump a racist and related a number of private comments Trump had made to support that claim. Republicans felt the need to respond, and here’s what happened:

  1. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the Freedom Caucus and a close ally of the president, brought in Lynne Patton to stand up behind him awkwardly for a few moments, thereby attesting by virtue of her presence that Trump cannot possibly be a racist. Because look, here’s a black person who worked for Trump at his company and was given a high position in the administration.
  2. Multiple Democratic representatives made critical comments about Meadows bringing Patton to the hearing, noting that you can have a black friend or a black employee and still be a racist. That this needs to be said in 2019 is rather remarkable, but in any case, it culminated with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who called out Meadows this way: "The fact that someone would use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee is alone racist in itself."
  3. Meadows then interrupted to ask that Tlaib’s words be “taken down,” a procedure by which a member can be rebuked for a personal insult to another member. “If anyone knows my record as it relates — it should be you, Mr. Chairman,” he said with rising emotion, referring to Rep. Elijah Cummings, who is black.
  4. Tlaib reiterated that as her words had made clear, she was referring not to the contents of Meadows’s heart but to his decision to parade Patton in front of the committee. That’s the most appropriate and persuasive way to deal with something like this, by putting the focus on what he did, not who he is. “I am not calling the gentleman, Mr. Meadows, a racist for doing so,” she said. “I’m saying that in itself it is a racist act.”
  5. With Meadows getting visibly angry and beginning to shout, Cummings asked Tlaib to repeat for a second time that she was not calling Meadows a racist. “You were not intending to call Mr. Meadows a racist, is that right?” he said. She responded, “No, Mr. Chairman, I did not call Mr. Meadows a racist.”
  6. Meadows was not placated. “There’s nothing more personal to me than my relationship — my nieces and nephews are people of color,” he said, his face reddening and his voice rising. “Not many people know that. You know that, Mr. Chairman. And to indicate that I asked someone who is a personal friend of the Trump family, who has worked for him, who knows this particular individual, that she’s coming in to be a prop? It’s racist to suggest that I asked her to come in here for that reason!” He went on: “Mr. Chairman, you and I have a personal relationship that’s not based on color.”
  7. Cummings then felt it necessary to offer his personal testimony attesting to his friendship with Meadows, acknowledge and validate his anger (“I could see and feel your pain”), and give Tlaib the opportunity to repeat for a third time that she had not called Meadows a racist.

Just to be clear, there’s no doubt that Patton was at that hearing to be a prop, no less than the giant poster with a picture of Cohen and the words “Liar liar pants on fire” that Republicans on the committee displayed at one point (yes, that actually happened). Patton wasn’t testifying; she was there to be photographed, her blackness a supposed rebuke to the idea that Trump is a racist.

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I suppose we could have different opinions about whether that kind of tokenistic stunt is itself racist, but the mere suggestion sent Meadows into a rage. Despite the fact that he was obviously misinterpreting Tlaib's words, his anger conferred upon Tlaib and Cummings the responsibility to soothe him and assure him that he was a person of good heart and pure intent. It took Tlaib repeating three times that she wasn't calling Meadows a racist before he calmed down and the hearing could proceed.

For many watching, the incident evoked the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, but with both race and gender at play instead of just gender. You’ll recall that when Christine Blasey Ford testified, she was calm, controlled, deferential and polite, because she knew that if she displayed any anger she’d be called a lunatic and her allegations dismissed out of hand. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, was utterly unhinged — crying, shouting, sneering, interrupting senators — and his anger was taken not as evidence that he was unreliable but just the opposite. It was considered proof that he was the true aggrieved party and the victim of a terrible injustice that had to be remedied.

In a similar way, once Meadows got angry, everyone had to swing into action to deal with his emotions, which in the moment were treated as not only legitimate but requiring attention and redress. He could have been told, “You misunderstood. Now pipe down because we’re proceeding.” But that’s not how it worked.

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Meadows’s rage at even the suggestion that he was capable of doing something racist happens in a context of a particular narrative about race and politics that has developed on the right in recent years. Conservatives have convinced themselves not only that racism is essentially a thing of the past but that someone being called racist is far worse than actual racism. Stories of white conservatives (whether politicians or ordinary people) being unfairly branded racist are a regular drumbeat on Fox News and in conservative talk radio, to the point where rank-and-file conservatives have become convinced that any argument with a liberal will inevitably end with them being called racist, a charge they will be unable to defend against no matter how many nonwhite nieces and nephews they have.

That’s not to say that there aren’t times when liberals do in fact unfairly brand particular conservatives as racist. It happens. But if the thought is so horrifying to Meadows, maybe he shouldn’t have spent 2012 going around saying that Republicans were going to “send Mr. Obama home to Kenya or wherever it is” (see here and here), spreading the racist smear that the former president was not, in fact, an American.

Oddest of all, this whole thing started over questions about whether Trump is a racist, which is utterly beyond debate at this point. It’s like we’re arguing about whether Harvey Weinstein really abused his power, or whether Kim Kardashian really wants to be famous. What else could Trump possibly do to convince of us of what he really thinks?

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And we’re headed into a reelection campaign that will, like Trump’s 2016 campaign and much of his presidency, be built on a foundation of fear and hatred of foreigners and white racial resentment. Even as they cheer that campaign on, conservatives like Meadows will take great umbrage at any suggestion that they’re supporting a racist president fomenting racism for racist ends. This won’t be the last such temper tantrum that we’ll see.

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