Ever since President Trump launched his candidacy by declaring Mexicans to be “rapists,” Trump’s public racism has often included two additional important elements: an adamant refusal to apologize for it in the face of outrage, and an equally adamant denial that the offending language was racist in any way.
Central to Trump’s racism — and more broadly to Trumpism writ large — is not just the content of the racism itself. It’s also that he’s asserting the right to engage in public displays of racism without it being called out for what it is. A crucial ingredient here is Trump’s declaration of the ability to flaunt his racism with impunity.
Trump’s racist attack on nonwhite progressive lawmakers is following this pattern, and indeed, it’s worth looking at what has come next, which is also revealing and important.
As you’ve heard, Trump tweeted on Sunday that four outspoken Democratic congresswomen “originally came from countries” that are “corrupt” and a “catastrophe,” and that they should “go back” to them. Three of his targets (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley) were born in the United States, and the fourth (Ilhan Omar) is a Somali refugee.
The remarks drew widespread condemnation, largely with the exception of Republicans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced Trump for wanting to make "America white again,” and, while some news organizations danced around what Trump had done, others explicitly labeled the comments “racist.”
Trump’s claim that nonwhite U.S. lawmakers who were born here should “go back” to their corrupt and disastrously run countries confirms once again that he is a white nationalist. It echoes Trump’s assertions about not wanting immigrants from “s---hole countries,” which he contrasted unfavorably with people from places like Norway.
But the new comments also contain the suggestion that nonwhite lawmakers who were born here, but trace roots back to such places, are in some sense not members of the American nation. They should “go back” to where they came from. They didn’t actually come from those places, but for Trump, they may as well have, and this renders their belonging and loyalty to this nation suspect.
The flat-out denial that any of this is racist is also a key ingredient here. This denial is more than just an effort to minimize the political damage such racist displays might do among swing voters (while keeping up the dog whistling to the base). It’s more than a “doubling down.”
Rather, the denial is crucial to the overall statement: The explicit idea here is that Trump is free to engage in public racism without it being called out for what it really is, that is, with no apology or capitulation to those who label it as such.
Trump and ‘many sides’
Good reporting has confirmed that by instinct or otherwise, Trump understands his public racism in just this way. After Trump refused to unambiguously condemn the Charlottesville white supremacists, claiming there’s racism on “many sides,” advisers persuaded him to give a second speech singling out the racism of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
But, as Bob Woodward’s recent book reports, Trump then saw a TV commentator describe this as a “course correction.” Trump exploded, raging: “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?” He then reverted to the “many sides” formulation.
For Trump, there wasn’t “anything wrong” with the original remarks. Why? Because by all indications, Trump genuinely subscribes to some form of the view that anti-white racism should be placed on a historical footing equivalent to that of anti-black racism and white supremacy, rather than recognizing the latter as a monstrous world-historical crime that defines our history and is deserving of unique condemnation. (Thus, Trump is now assailing the four nonwhite lawmakers as the true racists in this showdown.)
Trump believes his voters applaud this. He reportedly felt “vindicated” after offering his “many sides” speech, because he believed his base would cheer it.
Similarly, just before the 2016 election, Adam Serwer spoke to dozens of Trump voters and came away convinced that many supported his vows of discriminatory policies toward Muslims and Latino immigrants, but crucially, they also felt Trump was “reassuring” them that supporting such policies is “nothing to be ashamed of.”
Trump and ‘political correctness’
This aspect of Trump’s appeal is often described as an unwillingness to capitulate to “political correctness.” But that euphemistically obscures the deeper degradation taking place here.
As Jacob T. Levy observes, Trump’s repetition of racist and white nationalist tropes is laying waste to the norm, recently observed in both parties, according to which elites signal to white voters (at least nominally) that they should be better than our history.
In so doing, Levy notes, Trump is “changing what Republican voters think it means to be a Republican." He’s changing their expectations of how Republican politicians should behave.
In that context, the reluctance of GOP lawmakers to condemn Trump’s latest racism becomes a lot more significant. And so does Trump’s staged denial of the racism that’s staring us all in the face, which is central to the broader normalizing of it that’s underway.