No sooner had I ordered the 2011 book “Less Than Human” for a late-summer read than President Trump called Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” and a “lowlife.” Those two slurs fit nicely into author David Livingstone Smith’s philosophical study of man’s capacity to inflict cruelty by first dehumanizing the “other.”
Trump’s personal template is familiar. He likes someone, then doesn’t, then reduces the object of his scorn to something less than human. The mononymously known Omarosa, whose friendship with Trump began when she appeared on “The Apprentice,” was fired last year from her job as a White House aide.
During the past few days, she has released secretly taped recordings of her firing as well as a later conversation with Trump, published a tell-all account of her time in the White House and told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that she’s willing to cooperate with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. (How interested Mueller is in her input isn’t clear.)
All things considered, it sounds as if Trump and Omarosa may deserve each other. Recording people without their knowledge, especially in the White House, is certainly un-kosher if not illegal. On Tuesday, The Trump campaign filed an arbitration action against Omarosa for breach of a 2016 nondisclosure agreement. More important, however, is the risk of having exposed top officials to hackers if Omarosa used her cellphone to record these and other conversations.
Whatever her motivations, Omarosa seems set on exposing Trump as a racist. (Congratulations, Omarosa, you’re the last to know. He’s also a misogynist.) Trump may not be an n-word-hurling racist, though Omarosa claims to know of a tape from his reality-show days when he used the term. (Trump denies having used the epithet. But his pattern of speaking about African Americans, among others not of his race or ethnicity, suggests that racism taints his mental processes.)
It’s fair to say that most whites who are racist usually don’t think they are. This is because they don’t use the n-word or actively seek to bring harm to nonwhites. But racism is a pernicious, passive plague. You don’t have to burn crosses in people’s yards. All you have to do is see African Americans (or Asians or Latinos) in stereotypically demeaning ways. Thus, when Trump became angry with Omarosa, he didn’t say she was a disgruntled former employee — or make some other dismissively neutral comment. Instead, he tweeted:
“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!”
Directing such vitriol toward any woman is repellent. But what makes the president’s remarks especially repugnant is that they were aimed at a minority woman and followed a spate of similar insults targeting African Americans: He recently said that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has a low IQ, “somewhere in the mid-60s.” In a twofer on Aug. 3, he attacked both CNN anchor Don Lemon and Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, tweeting: “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
Granted, all of the above have been critical of Trump, but so what? Presidents are frequently under fire. Yet, through some strange reasoning, Americans are supposed to accept that, you know, Trump’s a fighter. He always fires back, as though this were justification for the bile he releases into the atmosphere. In the process, he has offered aid to his enemies by displaying a pattern of racially charged commentary.
It’s a simple matter of fact that certain insults have greater or lesser impact when applied to particular individuals or groups of people. Comparing Mitt Romney or Stephen K. Bannon to a dog, as Trump previously did, obviously isn’t the same as calling a black woman a dog. Questioning the intelligence of African Americans is especially blistering.
Did Trump mean for us to treat his comments so literally? Who cares? He’s the president of the United States and should be able to muzzle his schoolyard impulses. He should also know that dehumanization — or “othering,” to use current vernacular — leads to marginalization, which can lead to cruelty (say, separating young migrant children from their parents), which can lead to far worse.
As Smith explains in his book, it’s much easier to hurt, maim or kill another when you no longer see them as quite human. World history’s catalogue of atrocities confirms this. Which is why no one living today should be comfortable with the language of dehumanization, no matter how relatively minor the degree.
Least of all the president.