By David K. Shipler
President Trump might be erratic and unpredictable in many areas of public concern, as when he tweeted his disapproval this week—and then, 90 minutes later, his approval—of renewing the government’s authority to collect Americans’ international communications without warrants. His multiple positions on extending permission for Dreamers to stay in the US have been dizzying, and his oscillation between assailing and extolling China seems to depend on how recently the Chinese leadership has feted and flattered him.
But his contempt for people who are not whites of European origin has been as steady as his obsequious adulation of Vladimir Putin and his rampant deregulation of American industry. These seem to be unshakable pillars of attitude and policy, standing solidly against the swirling, impulsive chaos of his White House. Trump has been a dependable bigot, painting entire racial and ethnic groups with the broad brush of prejudice.
Nobody should be surprised. He has a long history. In 1972, federal investigators sent “testers” into a Brooklyn housing development managed by Trump’s company. After a black woman was told that there were no vacancies, a white woman was given a choice of two apartments. Extensive further evidence led to one of the largest civil-rights lawsuits in history.
The Washington Post reported: “Trump employees had secretly marked the applications of minorities with codes, such as ‘No. 9’ and ‘C’ for ‘colored,’ according to government interview accounts filed in federal court. The employees allegedly directed blacks and Puerto Ricans away from buildings with mostly white tenants, and steered them toward properties that had many minorities, the government filings alleged.”
When the Justice Department charged the Trump company with violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Trump denounced the accusations as “such outrageous lies.” Sound familiar? He then hired a family friend, the slimy lawyer Roy Cohn, who had helped Sen. Joseph McCarthy smear loyal Americans as communists, to countersue the government. The case was settled, and Trump never admitted wrongdoing.
Today, American society’s deeply rooted racism is often encrypted, at least in polite company, so that stereotypes are more implicit than explicit. Trump plays to that just-below-the-surface prejudice, either deliberately or instinctively, and often gives it overt voice. He did it by peddling the absurdity that Obama was born in Kenya—a transparent code for saying: He’s not one of us, he doesn’t belong. The curse of “otherness” has long been visited upon African-Americans.
Trump did it—again, whether consciously or not—by summoning up an old stereotype of nonwhites as lazy, as he accused Puerto Ricans after the hurricane devastation last fall of waiting for others to help. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” he tweeted from his luxurious golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. It’s a calumny the political right routinely uses against the poor to justify punitive measures built into government social programs. The Huffington Post wickedly ran Trump’s quote beneath a 2011 picture of Donald, Melania, and son Barron, at their extravagant Mar-a-Lago resort, flanked by an army of household workers who evidently do everything for them.
Indeed, federal assistance for Puerto Rico has been stingy compared with the aid that poured into Texas and Florida after the hurricanes. When Trump finally visited the territory, he tossed rolls of paper towels to desperate residents—who are US citizens, by the way. Months after the storms, Puerto Rico still struggles against incomplete electric power, inadequate water supplies, damaged roads, and the rubble of destroyed buildings. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida, New York, and elsewhere in the US, and many schools are closing for lack of pupils; a debilitating brain drain is underway. The only silver lining is that the influx of Puerto Ricans into Florida, for example, could tip that key battleground state decisively toward the Democrats.
Does any serious person really think that Trump would have practiced such negligence if the citizens who were suffering weren’t brown? Or if, they'd had the political clout in Congress of Texas or Florida?
Trump defends himself against such charges by arguing that race and ethnicity are not factors if he doesn’t mention them. That was his line when he let loose on the professional football players, most of whom were black, who knelt during the National Anthem to protest the state of blacks in America, particularly the pattern of police killing unarmed blacks with impunity. At a rally in Alabama, Trump declared, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” The virtually all-white crowd gave his words a long, loud cheer. He virtually advocated a boycott of the NFL. He ignored the issues the players were addressing, and he ignored the enormous contributions that many make in poor neighborhoods across the country.
Trump voters often take umbrage at being called racists for supporting this racist. But they can’t escape so easily. His crude bigotry was entirely evident during the campaign. Indeed, it was a keystone of his campaign. As everyone must remember, when he announced his run in June 2015, he said of Mexicans, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Again and again as he bashed immigrants, crowds of his supporters—almost all of them white—roared their approval.
The gravitational pull of his bigotry seems to overpower decency and sound judgment, not to mention the country’s interests. He has facilitated the coalescing of neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacist movements and gave light to the sickest tendencies in American society after a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia last August. He equivocated after thousands of torch-bearing whites carried swastikas and banners reading, “Jews will not replace us,” and one of their number rammed a vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a young woman and injuring 19.
He blamed both the white nationalists and the counter-protesters for violence and said, “You also had some very fine people on both sides.” David Duke, the former KKK leader, praised the president’s statement. In ensuing days, Trump finally condemned the Klan and neo-Nazis, but he could not erase the stain of his first statement.
The examples keep coming to the surface. In an Oval Office meeting with officials last year, Trump was said by some present to have decried the admission of “Haitians to the country,” The New York Times reported, “saying that they all had AIDS, as well as Nigerians, who he said would never go back to their ‘huts.’”
Now, this week, we have his slur against a large swath of the world, telling a Congressional delegation trying to work out immigration reform that he didn’t want people from “shithole countries” like Haiti and African nations but would rather have immigrants from Norway. It’s a safe bet that he was thinking of the blond, blue-eyed Christians from Norway, not Muslim immigrants who live there.
Democratic Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who was present, told reporters that Trump had repeatedly said “things which were hate-filled, vile, and racist.”
Hours later, Trump signed a declaration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day.