President Trump considers himself a branding wizard, but he is vexed by a branding crisis of his own: how to shed the label of “racist.”
As the campaign takes shape about 15 months before voters render a verdict on his presidency, Trump’s Democratic challengers are marking him a racist, and a few have gone so far as to designate him a white supremacist.
Throughout his career as a real estate magnate, a celebrity provocateur and a politician, Trump has recoiled from being called the r-word, even though some of his actions and words have been plainly racist.
Following a month in which he used racist remarks to attack four congresswomen of color, maligned a majority-black Baltimore district as a “rat and rodent infested mess” and saw his anti-immigrant rhetoric parroted in a statement that authorities believe was written by a mass shooter, the risk for Trump is that the pejorative that has long dogged him becomes defining.
Being called a racist has led Trump in recent days to lash out — in tweets and in public comments — behavior his advisers and allies explain as the natural reaction of anyone who does not consider himself a racist but is accused of being one.
“For them to throw out the race word again — racist, racist, racist,” Trump told reporters Friday as he departed the White House for a week-long vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They call anybody a racist when they run out of cards.”
The president views the characterization largely through the lens of politics, said one close adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations, explaining that Trump feels the charges of racism are just another attempt to discredit him — not unlike, he believes, the more than a dozen women who have accused him of sexual misconduct or the investigation into Russian election interference.
Many of his supporters see it the same way. “At first, they tried to use Russia, and that didn’t work,” said Don Byrd of Newton, Iowa. “Now it’s all about race — ‘He’s a racist. He’s this. He’s that.’ ”
Democrats have engaged in semantic maneuvering over just how racist they say the president is. While former congressman Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said without hesitation that the president is a white supremacist, former vice president Joe Biden stopped short.
“Why are you so hooked on that?” Biden asked reporters last week in Iowa. “You just want me to say the words so I sound like everybody else. I’m not everybody else. I’m Joe Biden. . . . He is encouraging white supremacists. You can determine what that means.”
Trump’s allies argue Democrats risk overreach in maligning the president.
“Democrats seem to forget that Trump supporters include blacks, whites, Hispanics and other minority groups who simply love this country,” Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign adviser, said in a text message. “Democrats have shown their absolute disdain for the president and now they have extended their disdain to half of America.”
Some Democrats seem cognizant of the danger. At last month’s presidential debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said, “There are people that voted for Donald Trump before that aren’t racist; they just wanted a better shake in the economy.”
Yet she, too, felt the need to rebuke Trump. “I don’t think anyone can justify what this president is doing,” Klobuchar concluded.
Trump recently called himself “the least racist person anywhere in the world,” but his history is littered with racist and racially charged comments and actions.
In 1989, Trump purchased newspaper advertisements demanding the reinstatement of the death penalty after the arrests of the “Central Park Five,” black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a white jogger in New York. They were exonerated in 2002, but Trump has repeatedly refused to acknowledge their innocence. In 2005, he pitched an idea for his reality television series, “The Apprentice,” that would have pitted white people against black people.
Trump then rose to political prominence partially by championing the racist “birtherism” myth that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States. As a presidential candidate, Trump attacked a judge overseeing a Trump University case for his Mexican heritage. And once in the White House, Trump equivocated in the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Last month, Trump tweeted that four minority congresswomen should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” even though all four are American and three were born in the United States. He later did not tell his supporters to stop chanting “Send her back!” at a campaign rally where he evoked the name of one of the four, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The Somali-born refugee became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
Trump’s rhetoric came under fresh examination last week after the man accused of killing 22 people in El Paso echoed the president’s language about an “invasion” of Hispanic migrants in what authorities say they believe is the suspect’s missive explaining the reasons for the shooting.
People who know Trump have come to his defense. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said that in her three years at his side, she has “never, ever, a single time heard this president say or do anything” racist. She described his reaction to being labeled a racist as “less frustration and more consternation that critics, especially those who would like to be president, resort to spewing invectives or hurling insults at the current president, instead of just arguing on the issues.”
Trump’s sensitivity about the “racist” sobriquet dates back decades. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist who has known Trump and tangled with him for many years, said the president has long understood that being called “the r-word” would damage his casino and hotel businesses — and now his political standing.
“At one level, you’re super sensitive about the r-word, and on another level, you buy ads on the Central Park Five,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton recalled that, at the height of the birtherism debate, Trump sought to persuade him to stop calling him out for his false claims about Obama’s birthplace on his MSNBC show by inviting him to a meeting at Trump Tower.
“I’m not a racist,” Sharpton recalled Trump insisting. The two men argued, and Sharpton responded, “I’m not calling you a racist, but what you are doing is racist.” Sharpton continued to attack Trump on air.
Some people who have worked for Trump say the president is less concerned about the moral significance of being called a racist than he is about the bottom-line implications.
“The guy sends out blatantly racist tweets,” former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said. “White supremacist. Racist. Those labels are bad for business. . . . It means a reduction in the colors of people who want to vote for you. He’s upset about it because it’s bad for business.”
To the extent that one’s understanding of what is and isn’t racist is forged at a young age, Trump’s upbringing may be instructive. One former adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president, suggested Trump believes he is more racially tolerant than his father, Fred Trump, who was reported to have been arrested in connection with a 1927 Ku Klux Klan march in New York — an arrest the president has denied as “nonsense” and said “never happened.”
In the 1970s, Fred and Donald Trump were sued by the Justice Department and accused of discriminating against black renters in their residential properties.
Conway argued that the charges of racism are likely to help Trump politically because his voters may think Democratic candidates are unfairly branding them as racists, too, simply for supporting the president.
“When the elite wrist-flickers are out there demeaning and ridiculing his rank-and-file supporters — those forgotten men and women who aren’t chanting at the rallies — an insult to him is an insult to them and vice versa,” Conway said.
One such Trump supporter, Laura Capps, 39, had driven last week from Boone, Iowa, to attend the first full day of the state fair. Capps said she was exasperated when Democrats blamed Trump for mass shootings — “there were shootings under Obama, under every president” — and said his opponents obsessed over Trump’s tweets and statements because they had nothing else to attack.
“I’ve been called a racist because I’m a Trump supporter,” Capps said. “It’s ridiculous. I’ve got a first cousin that’s married to an African American gal. So their kids are biracial, and I love them just like the rest of my second cousins.”
Holly Bailey and David Weigel in Des Moines contributed to this report.