It is often said of President Trump that he is careless in his use of language.
What an underestimation that is of a man who shows a fighter pilot’s precision at waging racist and sexist attacks. His words have a clear effect — stirring and normalizing bigotry — while preserving a veneer of deniability for himself and the followers who take up his call.
That is why, in some ways, it is almost irrelevant whether there is any truth to his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman’s explosive contention in her new book that Trump has used the n-word and that there is a recording of it somewhere. (Trump denied it on Twitter, but press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she “cannot guarantee” no such tape exists.)
Trump doesn’t have to say it, when he can employ so many other expressions that will unleash the same ugly forces.
Consider the language the president chose on Tuesday morning to describe Manigault Newman herself, a notorious contestant on “The Apprentice” who became his most prominent African American hire at the White House.
“When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!” Trump tweeted to his 53.8 million followers.
Those two words evoke centuries of disgraceful history in which dark-skinned human beings were spoken of as animals.
Trump’s defenders will surely point to the fact he has used canine comparisons when talking about white men. But that has been in similes about their failures or their transgressions: Mitt Romney “choked like a dog” when he ran for president; journalist David Gregory, commentator Erick Erickson, television host Glenn Beck all were fired “like” dogs. They did not become them.
This is the difference when his target is a woman or a nonwhite person: Trump so often transforms them into something less than human. MS-13 gang members are “animals,” whose acts are amplified into a reason to fear all undocumented immigrants. Former Miss Universe Alicia Machado said he called her “Miss Piggy” when she gained weight after the pageant.
Similarly, when Trump is criticized by an African American, his first reflex is often to disparage their intellect. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), he tells us over and over, is “very low IQ.”
This month, Trump tweeted about a segment he had seen on CNN, featuring two black men: “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.” He also called Manigault Newman “not smart.”
In and of themselves, his words are slippery enough to discourage anyone who might pin the most shameful of labels on the man who utters them.
During the 2016 campaign, I put the question to Hillary Clinton directly at a Democratic debate: Is Donald Trump a racist?
She deflected: “People can draw their own conclusions about him.”
His apologists will argue that all of these comments do not reveal anything more sinister than a combative nature. “The president’s an equal-opportunity person that calls things like he sees it. He always fights fire with fire,” Sanders said. But it is hard to make that case when you consider how many decades Trump has made nonwhite people The Other and stoked racial division to further his own ambitions.
In 1989, as he was pondering a run for mayor of New York, the city was shocked by the rape and beating of a white investment banker while she was jogging in Central Park. The real estate magnate ran full-page ads in the city’s four major newspapers calling for the death penalty for the five teenage boys — four black and one Hispanic — who had been accused of the crime. After years in prison, they had their convictions vacated, but Trump has never apologized or shown any second thoughts about his assumptions of their guilt.
“Donald Trump, he was the fire starter,” one of the wrongfully imprisoned men, Yusuf Salaam, later said.
Similarly, Trump began his rise to the presidency by leading a campaign to slander the nation’s first African American president, demanding a birth certificate as proof that he was actually born in this country.
And then, there was the most disgraceful comment of a presidency that has seen more than its share of them: Trump’s declaration that “both sides” were to blame for the deadly violence that occurred last year when white nationalists marched in Charlottesville and one of them is accused of plowing a car into a crowd of people who had been protesting their racist display, killing a woman.
Last weekend, Trump marked the anniversary of that tragedy with a tweet condemning “all types of racism.”
It was another telling choice of words, because racism needs no such qualifier. There is, in the end, only one type of racism. It just finds many ways to express itself.