The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Trump helps his supporters justify racism

President Trump's rally in Rio Rancho, N.M., on Monday. (Cengiz Yar/Getty Images)

As any politician could tell you — or, let’s be honest, any Democratic politician — courting particular demographic communities requires subtlety and understanding. You have to know what issues are important to them. You have to know how political power is distributed among them and where key lines of influence are. You have to know which figures they believe are trustworthy proxies and which they don’t.

You have to talk to them without talking down to them, and you have to listen to their concerns. You have to communicate your sincere desire to be an ally without looking like you’re just shamelessly pandering for votes. It’s not easy, whether the community in question is African Americans or Latinos or Jews or Italian Americans or young people or LGBTQ voters.

Most politicians understand how complex that task can be. And then there’s President Trump.

He has a particular way of talking about minority groups when he’s not stirring up hatred and fear toward them, a way that sounds friendly on the surface but actually serves to buttress his more racist rhetoric and policy choices. It’s aimed not at the minority groups themselves but at his white supporters, to give them a way of thinking about race that justifies their own role in the enterprise of Trumpism, a project that puts racial resentment at its core.

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Let’s look at the way Trump talks to and about one minority group, from a rally he held Monday in New Mexico, in which he called out Steve Cortes, a TV pundit and Trump supporter who was in attendance:

He happens to be Hispanic, he happens to be Hispanic, but I’ve never quite figured it out because he looks more like a WASP than I do. So I haven’t figured that one out, but I’ll tell you what, there is nobody that loves his country more or Hispanics more than Steve Cortes. Steve. Thank you Steve.
Nobody loves the Hispanics more. Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics? He says the country, I don’t know. I may have to go for the Hispanics, to be honest. We got a lot of Hispanics, we love our Hispanics, get out and vote.

To be clear, Trump gave that italicized “Hispanic” an utterly bizarre exaggerated enunciation (you can see it here at 34:30). This probably reminded many people of the time in 2016 he called out at a rally, “Where’s my African American?” The man in question, one of Trump’s few black supporters, recently departed the GOP because he found Trump and the party too racist.

Liberals and conservatives share basic common values, but leaders like Donald Trump use fear to exploit their differences for political gain. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump is a big fan of this kind of tokenism — Look, I’ve got a minority supporter! — not because it will persuade other members of that minority group to love him but because it tells his white supporters that supporting him isn’t racist. How could it be, when there’s a Hispanic guy standing right there who loves Trump?

The key to why Trump’s rhetoric is so condescending (when it isn’t outright hostile) is in the possessive words he uses. “We got a lot of Hispanics, we love our Hispanics.” The Hispanics are not part of the “we,” they’re something possessed by the “we,” or by Trump himself.

Trump never asks what members of a minority group might care about, though he will occasionally tell them what they think. At the New Mexico rally he cited an obviously fictional poll number about how most Hispanics supposedly support him, then said, “You know why? Because the Hispanic Americans, they understand, they don't want criminals coming across the border, they don't want people taking their jobs, they want to have that security and they want the wall. They want the wall.”

Whenever Trump or his advocates are asked about questions of race, what they inevitably say is that unemployment among African Americans and Latinos is near record lows. Which is true, because unemployment is low for everyone. But the message is not so much “I’ve been working hard on their behalf,” which would be absurd (it’s not as though he has policies aimed at aiding members of minority groups in particular) but rather “They should quit their complaining and be grateful to me.”

Which lines up nicely with the perspective on race that Trump supporters have been hearing and believing for years from many other sources: Minorities are a bunch of whiners who keep complaining about racism, when in fact the only racism that remains in America is racism against white people. They should be more grateful for what America has done for them. As Jelani Cobb wrote in 2017, “Ungrateful is the new uppity."

Outside of a small group of extremists, most everyone in contemporary America wants to tell themselves they aren’t racist, even if they embrace all kinds of racist ideas. This includes not just Trump’s most ardent supporters, but the president himself. At one point in New Mexico, Trump said almost as an aside, “I’m the least racist person in this room.” The line was met with restrained applause, as at least a few attendees probably paused to ask themselves, “Wait, does that mean he’s saying I’m more racist than him?”

It passed by, drowned in the repeated assurance that being for Trump doesn’t mean you’re complicit in racism. After all, as every Trump supporter knows, some of those minorities are very fine people.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Trump’s 2020 strategy looks less and less tethered to reality

Stephanie Valencia, Joaquin Castro, Ana Maria Archila, Cristina Jiménez, Luis Miranda and Luis Miranda Jr.: Hispanics in America are under attack

Paul Waldman: The Trump administration ramps up its war on legal immigration

Greg Sargent: Americans are growing more accepting of immigrants. Take note, Democrats.