During the campaign, he called Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “racist” for claiming to have been Native American to advance her career. In the same tweet, Trump referred to her as “Pocahontas,” an appellation for which Trump himself has been criticized as racist.
Warren is apparently the only white person whom Trump has referred to as racist since he announced his intention to run for president. Hers was also the only example in which the target of the “racist” action wasn’t Trump.
Trump's tweet on Monday morning about Lee's speech at the Academy Awards may be the most revealing about his thinking.
Lee's speech was a “racist hit on your President,” Trump claimed, while insinuating that the filmmaker couldn't even deliver his remarks without notes, much less read them. (Trump, of course, often uses a Teleprompter to deliver speeches — even after saying on the campaign trail that candidates shouldn't be allowed to use them “because you don't even know if the guy is smart.")
You can read the “racist hit” for yourself. Lee began by noting the significance of the month and year in the struggle of African Americans in the United States and recalling his grandmother’s financial support for him even though her own mother was a slave.
"We all connect with our ancestors,” he concluded. “We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing!"
Lee is advocating for Trump's defeat, clearly, and putting him on the side of “hate.” But it's not an assertion about Trump's race. Lee doesn't oppose Trump because he's white and he clearly didn't suggest that Trump should be defeated because he's white.
It feels foolish to even take Trump's criticism as sincere. Trump himself has claimed that “racist” is a term that is used mostly for political ends, as he's said repeatedly.
“It’s the oldest play in the Democratic playbook,” he said in New Hampshire in August 2016. “When Democratic policies fail, they are left with only this one tired argument: You’re racist, you’re racist, you’re racist. They keep saying it.”
"It's the last refuge of the discredited Democrat politician,” he added. “They keep going back to the same well."
He probably believes this to some extent. There’s little indication that Trump sees racism in anything more subtle than overt expressions of racism by explicit racists.
“Racism is evil,” he said after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. (He was reading from a Teleprompter.). “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-nazis, white supremacist and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear.”
If active hate groups (itself a seemingly malleable term for Trump) are the extent of what one believes constitutes racism, then naturally most descriptions of others as “racist” would be insincere. (It would also validate Trump’s regular claims that he’s the “least racist” person. If only Nazis and Klansmen are racist, everyone who’s not a Nazi or in the Klan is tied as least racist.) He bookended that broad condemnation, by the way, with his declaration immediately after the violence erupted that there had been “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” and by his later comments that the group largely composed of white nationalists and neo-Nazis also included “fine people.”
The tell in Trump's tweet, though, is his use of “your president.” He's not talking to everyone. He's talking to his supporters.
He's telling them that opposition to him from Lee and others who'd criticize his presidency as hateful are themselves guilty of playing the race card and, under the rules of political rhetoric established by the Democrats, are therefore themselves racist.
He seems to actually believe, to some extent, that criticism of him from a black person — the apparently false Smollett allegations, Alcindor’s question, Smiley’s comments on ABC — is actually an attack on him based on race. If that’s the case, it suggests that Trump thinks black critics (or members of the media) see him and his presidency only in terms of race. The result is his leveraging the question of race for his political benefit in talking to his base — which is what he claims the Democrats always do.
He's also telling his base (which is itself overwhelmingly white) how much he's done for black Americans as a way of waving away even indirect criticisms like Lee's.
Trump makes the frankly ridiculous claim that he’s done more for black Americans than almost any other president because of criminal justice reform, low unemployment and tax cuts. The broad decline in black unemployment began under former president Barack Obama, of course, and the tax cuts largely benefited wealthier Americans and corporations. How does this stack up to, say, Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant or Lyndon Johnson?
The success of that sales pitch can be evaluated by looking at the numbers themselves: His approval rating with African Americans was at a new low of 6 percent in January according to Gallup. More than 80 percent of black Americans see Trump as racist. Trump’s base may be convinced that he’s delivering for black Americans, but black Americans don’t seem to be.
Trump's tweet was a circling of the wagons. His tweet argued to his base that Lee's criticism was inherently about race and undeservedly so.
Lee was asking for Trump to be defeated while accepting an award for a film, “BlacKkKlansman,” which is about a black police officer who pretends to be a member of the KKK in order to infiltrate the group. The film’s primary villain is a man who’s worried about the organization being undermined by outsiders who disagree with its goals and may be working to destroy it.
The film made a number of direct allusions to the political moment but some indirect ones also eventually emerged.