President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 19, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)It was racist, xenophobic, and nativist, but probably not intentionally so.
Many of President Trump’s most passionate fans and foes share an odd tendency: Both groups believe his most controversial actions are premeditated and reflective of deeply held beliefs.
They think this despite Trump’s saying on numerous occasions that he doesn’t believe in doing much preparation, preferring to rely on his instincts in the moment.
Nowhere is this reliance on gut more in evidence than when he attacks people. He goes for the nearest weapon at hand, regardless of whether it’s juvenile, boorish, untrue, racist, or sexist. Contrary to the myth that he opposes political correctness, he will even use progressive weapons against his enemies when the opportunity arises. In 2015, he badgered Jeb Bush for being insensitive to women and women’s health.
Given all that, here’s a question about Trump’s recent tweets urging the so-called “Squad” to “go back” to their own countries: Did he intend to make a racist jab at the four nonwhite congresswomen? Given that all four are citizens — three of them were born in the U.S., and the fourth, Ilhan Omar, is a naturalized refugee who has been here since she was a kid — the prevailing view among most liberals (and quite a few conservatives) is “yes,” which is one reason we’re still talking about the comment more than a week after it was made.
But I don’t think so.
Now before you get all worked up, hear me out. I’m not defending the president against the charge of racism. The tweets were racist, as well as xenophobic and nativist.
I asked if he intended to make a racist jab, not whether the jab itself was racist.
Here’s a less-than-startling insight: Trump often doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and not just on matters of race. This is the guy who said not long ago that noise from wind turbines causes cancer. In 2017 he told the British prime minister, “You’re our largest (trading) partner. A lot of people don’t know that. I was surprised.” Our largest trading partner is China.
He also has a long history of not knowing his history. He once said that his supposed hero, President Andrew Jackson (now there was a racist who meant what he said), was very angry about the Civil War, despite the fact that Jackson died 16 years before it started. Trump said blacks in America — in 2016 America — have never “ever, ever, ever” had it so bad. If you don’t count slavery, Jim Crow, and nearly every other era in American history, that’s true.
It is this ignorance of history that I think explains, though it doesn’t excuse, his tweet. When Trump adopted the slogan “America First,” many observers, including yours truly, were dismayed because of the sinister historical connotations of the phrase. It was the rallying cry of isolationists — on the left and right — who opposed intervening in World War II. It was later picked up by Patrick Buchanan’s presidential campaign. But Trump didn’t know that. He adopted the term when a reporter for the New York Times used it to characterize his philosophy, and he liked the sound of it.
So when Trump tells four women of color that they should go back where they came from, it’s possible he had no clue that he was tapping into a rich vein of racist and nativist rhetoric. Indeed, it’s possible he didn’t know that three of the women weren’t immigrants at all. The fact that he seemed initially surprised by the controversy bolsters my theory. He just thought he was trolling Democrats.
This seems to be lost on a lot of his critics. They cite his attacks on women, blacks, and Muslims while excluding his attacks on white male Christians, and they connect the dots to make the case that he’s a bigot. That’s certainly fair, given his record. Where I think his foes misdiagnose the malady is in thinking they’ve identified the “real” Trump, and if they could just convince everyone he’s a racist, he’ll be impeached or magically disappear.
Yes, Trump’s got bigoted ideas, but like all ideas, they take a back seat to his narcissism and glandular impulsiveness. My unified theory of Trump is that he’s a person with little to no interior life who responds to flattery and criticism with Pavlovian predictability.
One last point needs to be made: There is a huge difference between an explanation of Trump’s behavior and an excuse for it. So much of the punditry defending Trump confuses the two. He may have simply intended to turn the “Squad” into the face of the Democratic party, but that doesn’t excuse how he’s doing it.
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