Why Donald Trump bothered to issue an economic program is beyond me. It has some good things in it, like raising the tax on carried interest, but no one really cares about Trump’s economic plan — no matter his supposed expertise. He says he’s a businessman who knows about such things. His supporters don’t care that he’s a builder. They care that he’s a destroyer.
The impetus for the Trump campaign is President Obama. He represents a historic, even cataclysmic, change in U.S. political life and, for some, what the United States is supposed to be about. One of the first to declare that something had gone awfully wrong was Trump himself. Way before he became a presidential candidate, he pronounced himself a birther. Obama was not born in the United States, Trump said — and he would prove it.
Trump dispatched private investigators to Hawaii — at least he said he did. The gumshoes would prove that Obama was not born there, as the president insisted and documents unambiguously proved, but somewhere else, possibly Indonesia, where Obama’s mother spent some time as an anthropologist. What was certain, Trump maintained, was that the man was not a native-born American. Just listen to his name. Case closed.
Trump has never backed down from those assertions. They have given his campaign a patina of racism that pollutes it and propels it. When he shouts that he is not one to be politically correct, his meaning is clear. When he veers to insult Mexican Americans and Mexicans in general, he adds to his bona fides as a nativist-cum-racist. When he calls Mexicans rapists, he is catering to one of the uglier and most lethal of folkloric prejudices. His listeners know what he is saying. He speaks the language of the pitchfork.
The language of the pitchfork is also spoken by Louis Farrakhan. As he has in the past, he assembled a throng of black men — and some women — on the Mall for his usual message of uplift and obscurance. This time he left out his obsession with the number 19. (“When you have a 9 you have a womb that is pregnant,” Farrakhan explained at his 1995 Million Man March, “and when you have a 1 standing by the 9, it means that there is something secret that has to be unfolded.”) Still, the absence of numerology did not change the fact that the man is racist and anti-Semitic. He is, if such a thing is possible, even more repugnant than Trump.
But as with Trump, that’s the whole idea. There are some black men and women who believe in the tenets of Farrakhan, but they are few. His religion is like Trump’s economic program — entirely beside the point. What matters is his willingness to say the unsayable about whites in general and Jews in particular. His listeners may not be racist or anti-Semitic, but they admire him for the enemies he’s made.
My problem with both Trump and Farrakhan goes way beyond those individuals. More troubling are the people who think they can parse their messages, accept what they like and discard the rest. This is possible with ordinary public figures or politicians. You can, say, endorse their foreign policy but not their position on ethanol. But when the salient piece is a call for intolerance — sometimes stated, sometimes not — then the culprit is not just the speaker but also the listener as well. Silence is complicity.
By virtue of his poll numbers, Trump’s more obnoxious and idiotic statements are being ignored — yesterday’s news. The other day I heard one of his operatives interviewed on TV, and he was repeatedly asked if Trump might drop out of the race. Trump will go, and that is likely, but what I wanted the Trump guy to be asked is whether he — he! — endorses Trump’s statements that Mexicans are rapists and politicians are stupid and China is eating our lunch — and, just for good measure, whether the lovely Bette Midler is “an extremely unattractive woman.”
Like Trump, I don’t much like PC. Like Farrakhan, I believe in speaking my mind. But I also believe that we all have an obligation to repudiate bigotry and not think we can use it to serve a political purpose. Many thousands failed to do that over the weekend on the Mall, and many more have done something similar by supporting Trump. For them, I have just one word:
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.