The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s flirtation with the n-word cannot be ignored

Former president Donald Trump holds a rally for Republican nominee for Senate Ted Budd at Wilmington International Airport in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 23. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
4 min

We have long known that former president Donald Trump is the kind of racial arsonist who brings a gas can to an inferno. But not even I thought he would fool around with an accelerant like the n-word.

What? You didn’t hear about this? I’m not shocked. The actual n-word is so noxious that even its equally loaded euphemism can discomfit people into moving along and pretending nothing ever happened. For others, the euphemism offers just enough cover for them not to have to speak up.

Well, I’m in neither of those groups, and I refuse to let Trump slide on this one.

The incident happened two weeks ago at a rally in North Carolina for Rep. Ted Budd, the MAGA Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. I only heard about it thanks to a tweet from Brennan Murphy of the Recount that I happened upon last week. Surrounded by his adoring flock, Trump bellowed, “You know Putin mentioned the n-word. Do you know what the n-word is?”

Plenty of people shouted the answer they thought Trump was looking for — because there is only one answer. Hardly surprised by the response to his purposefully provocative question, Trump jumped in and said, “No, no, no, it’s the ‘nuclear’ word.”

Clever. He was talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in his war on Ukraine.

Doug Jones, the former Alabama senator who successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, called out Trump’s tip of the hood to white supremacists for what it was. “Folks, no one uses the term ‘n-word’ when talking about nuclear weapons. That term refers to only one thing & Trump used it for a MAGA candidate running for the Senate,” Jones tweeted. “This is the kind of white nationalist, dog whistle rhetoric that has no place in America.”

True, that kind of rhetoric ought to have no place. And yet it’s everywhere in this country, and on purpose. Republican operative Lee Atwater bluntly broke down the strategy in a 1981 interview: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N----, n-----, n-----.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n-----.’ That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

Sadly, Trump’s North Carolina antics show that playing with the n-word outright might not backfire as much as it used to.

That Trump stunt, though, is just one recent instance of how he weaponizes his personal grievances to undermine our democracy. You’ll recall that a week after the North Carolina rally, Trump declared that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had a “DEATH WISH” and nicknamed Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife and Trump’s former transportation secretary, “his China loving wife, Coco Chow!” McConnell’s sin? Voting yes on keeping the government funded.

At a time when elected officials are facing increased threats and talk of “civil war” is exploding on far-right social media, Trump’s targeting of McConnell and Chao is especially dangerous. And it doesn’t help matters that the former president is aided and abetted by Republican “leaders” such as Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) who refuse to condemn the indefensible when given multiple opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s toying with the n-word in North Carolina was not the first such flirtation. And let’s be honest: Many of us are bracing for Trump to drop the pretense and let the word gurgle out uncensored. At least one person alleges that he’s already used the epithet plenty — though Trump denies the accusations. If he ever did say the n-word in public, he would need to be immediately condemned by everyone, including Republicans.

But I’m skeptical that the folks who didn’t walk away after the Access Hollywood tape, the attacks against McConnell and Chao, or all the outrages in between would suddenly find their voice if Trump actually dropped the n-word. He’s getting awfully close, and we’ve barely heard a peep.

And even if Trump’s backers did denounce an outright usage, the damage of their silence now is done. In some ways, where we already are is just as bad: Trump gets to dance all over his kindling, waving his matchbook, but because he hasn’t struck a flame, he can claim that any fire that results is no fault of his own — and so can his enablers.

That’s why they’ve stayed so quiet: These people are just fine letting Trump burn everything down as long as they get control of the ruins.

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