I beg to differ.
My immediate reaction, upon seeing the news of Barr’s vile comments, was to post on Twitter: “Trump is normalizing racism.” Bret Baier and Dana Perino of Fox News were incredulous. “I don’t think that President Trump had anything to do with this tweet,” Perino said. Baier denied that Trump is “responsible for that tweet.” Brit Hume jumped in on Twitter to proclaim that my comment “is an example of the way too many Trump critics think everything is somehow about him.”
Of course I wasn’t suggesting that the president dictated Barr’s comments or that she wasn’t a racist before Trump was elected. Barr has a long history of pushing crazy conspiracy theories — lately, pro-Trump conspiracy theories — and of making racist comments. In 2013, she tweeted that Susan E. Rice, another African American and former Obama aide, was “a man with big swinging ape balls.” Such comments did not, of course, prevent Trump from embracing Barr — indeed, he thanked her for her support in 2016. He still hasn’t condemned anything she has said — instead, he condemned ABC for not apologizing for criticism of him! And his son Donald Trump Jr. hasn’t apologized for retweeting Barr’s vicious attack on Soros.
What I was suggesting is that racists such as Barr might feel emboldened to publicly vent their hatred because they see the president doing something similar. This should not be such a radical idea for conservatives. They used to believe that a president’s conduct mattered, because it set a moral tone for the entire nation.
Here is Bill Bennett writing in 1998: “Civilized society must give public affirmation to principles and standards, categorical norms, notions of right and wrong. Even though public figures often fall short of these standards — and we know and expect some will — it is nevertheless crucial that we pay tribute to them.” Bill Clinton’s flagrant misconduct with Monica Lewinsky, Bennett opined, “is moral bankruptcy, and it is damaging our country, its standards, and our self-respect.”
How much greater must the damage be from a president who pays off a porn star, endorses an accused child molester for the Senate, mocks a disabled reporter, lies an average of 6.5 times a day — and, yes, engages in flagrant racism. It is striking how little conservatives who scolded Clinton have to say about any of this — and especially about Trump’s regular attacks on minorities.
Remarkably enough, nearly 80 percent of Republicans claim that Trump isn’t biased against black people. (More than 80 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of all Americans say he is.) How can they deny what’s in front of their eyes? He has a decades-long history of racist comments and acts, and he rose to political prominence by claiming that the first African American president wasn’t born in America. As president, Trump has said there were “very fine people” on both sides at the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, defended Confederate monuments, pardoned racist former sheriff Joe Arpaio, described African nations as “shithole” countries and vilified African American NFL players who were peacefully protesting police brutality by saying they “shouldn’t be in the country.”
Trump calls certain immigrants “animals” — this has become part of his rally shtick — and complains that people in sanctuary cities are “breeding” like, well, animals. He claims it’s only MS-13 gangsters whom he is referring to as “animals,” as if that somehow makes it okay to employ the kind of dehumanizing language used by ethnic cleansers from Rwanda to Nazi Germany. But he is seeking to make these outlaws, who make up less than 1 percent of all gang members in the United States, the symbols of undocumented immigrants.
Can I prove that Trump’s hate-mongering is infecting the culture? No, I can’t, but it stands to reason — and there are signs that it is. This year, there are at least 10 white supremacists running for office — and that doesn’t count failed West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship, who excoriated “China people,” and failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams, who campaigned in a “deportation bus.” Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, and the Southern Poverty Law Center report that the number of hate crimes and hate groups has increased since Trump became president.
This is evidence to support conservatives’ intuition that the character of a president matters. But apparently that’s something conservatives no longer believe. Or do they simply not care that a president is setting a racist tone for the nation?