President Trump’s reelection campaign operates a Twitter account, Trump War Room, that serves as a sort of formalized voice of the MAGA social media universe. On Monday, the account responded to Trump’s speech addressing the weekend’s mass shootings by highlighting more than a dozen times the president has spoken out against hate and racism. Trump’s speech was an attempt to undercut criticism that the shooting in El Paso in particular was committed by a person who echoed his rhetoric on immigration in targeting Hispanics. How could Trump be considered at all culpable, the War Room account seemed to be saying, when he’d so often called out racism as bad?
Of the 16 examples cited by the account, two came from Trump’s speech on Monday. Two others came after a young man targeted a synagogue in California in April. Two were from addresses to Congress, including in 2017 when the president was broadly criticized for being slow to speak out against anti-Semitic violence. Several addressed hate in only vague terms. Three cited Trump’s comments after violence in Charlottesville two years ago — comments he undercut the following day by angrily declaring at a news conference that there were “very fine people” on both sides of violence that erupted at a racist right-wing rally.
The examples of Trump explicitly rebuking racism or anti-Semitism quoted by the account were examples that stemmed from the president facing criticism for ignoring or fostering hateful or racist rhetoric or actions. Trump War Room was asking that Trump get credit for Trump having to explain that he wasn’t a racist. It’s like the parents of a kid who has to write “I will not be a bully” 200 times on the chalkboard telling their friends that their kid can’t be a bully because he repudiated the idea hundreds of times.
Here, though, the calculation is more cynical. Trump gives his teleprompter speeches specifically because he wants that political cover. They’re his alibis, the guy ostentatiously making a scene in a public place as his accomplices rob the bank. Trump gives these speeches so that his allies can later say, “Look at the speech he gave!” He gives the speeches so that he has something to point to when people raise questions about the rhetoric he uses at rallies or that his campaign uses in below-the-radar ads on Facebook.
To some extent, this tactic works. No one really wants to believe the president is racist, particularly his supporters. If your view of racism is that it demands a “coloreds only” sign, the n-word or a white hood, then you’ll accept Trump’s prepared-remark excoriations as a by-the-book presidential rejection of racism and view his rhetoric about immigration and Muslims as simply politics.
To a broader extent, this tactic doesn’t work. Most Americans disapprove of his presidency and most consider him a racist.
It’s important to recognize that even when Trump’s prepared remarks regurgitate standard presidential rhetoric, he’s not using the words in the way that Americans might expect. Trump has made it clear repeatedly, for example, that when he says “bipartisan” he really means “Democrats give me something I want.” (See his tweets Monday morning, in which he proclaimed that a bipartisan approach to gun violence meant the Democrats giving Republicans new immigration restrictions.) Similarly, “unity” means “even my opponents decide to support me.” Trump has managed to massage standard political language to reflect the world he wants to see.
More than four years after he announced his candidacy, it should be obvious to any observer that Trump’s true feelings are those he expresses at his rallies and on Twitter. There are multiple examples of him undercutting prepared remarks with subsequent tweets, Charlottesville being the most obvious example. None of the examples of Trump speaking out against racism and anti-Semitism come from him delivering earnest off-the-cuff remarks before attendees at a MAGA rally.
That’s because it’s obviously not something he spends a lot of time worried about. We’re meant to believe that a man who equated migrants from Mexico with drug smuggling and rape in the first minutes of his campaign or who called for banning an entire religious group from the United States is similarly someone for whom racist beliefs are anathema?
Trump understands that these debates give him an opportunity to have friction with the media. Reporters ask him questions about his views on race and approach to racial minorities, and he uses that as a way to project to his supporters that he’s being unfairly attacked. Shortly after the 2018 election, journalist Yamiche Alcindor asked the president if he was concerned about emboldening white nationalists. He responded by calling the question itself racist. Trump isn’t racist; the real racists are the people, particularly in the media, who are asking whether he’s racist.
Trump deploys rhetoric and advocates policies that are at times explicitly focused on race. He uses these prepared speeches to give his team and his allies something to use as a get-out-of-racism-free card. At times, it works. The White House then uses this back-and-forth itself as an example of the media's ongoing crusade against Trump.
It’s worth noting that one of the Trump War Room tweets playing into this cycle Monday quoted a tweet from Trump offered at the first anniversary of the Charlottesville violence.
That reference to “all types of racism” was obviously intended to include anti-white racism, something that many of Trump’s supporters consider a concern. It was, in other words, a tweet from Trump in which he equated racism against black and Hispanic Americans with putative racism targeting his supporters.
Again: The Twitter Trump is the real Trump. The War Room should have stuck to the prepared remarks.