After white nationalists beat an early retreat from the Parkman Bandstand, Americans who were reassured by the way love defeated hate in Boston were left with an unanswered question: Is President Trump a racist?
Trump has said so many racist things that it’s hard to escape that conclusion. Like every human being, he harbors bigoted impulses. What makes him more racist than most is that he has refused to recognize this weakness and has done nothing to compensate for it. Instead he indulges it.
Boston and Charlottesville provide the kind of ink blot tests that reveal the man. In TV coverage of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which ended with a deadly terrorist attack on counter-demonstrators, Trump saw white men in khaki pants and polo shirts and concluded “some very fine people” were among the torch-bearing neo-Nazis. When he saw the opponents to racism in Boston, among them many black and brown citizens, he rushed to declare, “Looks like many anti-police agitators.” In fact, events in Boston were remarkably free of agitation, as peace prevailed.
With two different reactions, the president’s heart and mind were both in display. To him a multiracial crowd of anti-hate activists represents a threat to the established order, which he associates with the police. Likewise, he was incapable of recognizing the bald fact that even though some looked like they were going to play golf at one of his courses, there were no “very fine people” walking under Confederate and Nazi symbols in Virginia.
That Trump would see “agitators” in one crowd and “fine people” in another is consistent with social science that shows racial bias is part of the human condition. By this definition, you are a racist and so am I. However, with an open and curious mind a person of good will can compensate for his or her impulses. Similarly, a careful study of history and civics can help anyone, but most especially a president, contribute to the American democratic project. Unfortunately, the president is a failed student of both civics and history and he lacks the motivation to improve.
The proof of Trump’s lazy mind can be seen in the way that he prefers beliefs to facts, and clings to them like life preservers as he is bobs in an ocean of evidence. An apt example can be seen in his response to the release of the so-called Central Park Five, who were teenagers when they were railroaded into prison for an assault they didn’t commit. In 1989 Trump paid for newspaper ads that called for the death penalty for the five minority youths. When they were released and then compensated, Trump told me he didn’t accept the DNA evidence that exonerated the men, because a detective had given him inside information. In a public statement, he noted, “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty.”
Trump also refuses to accept facts when it comes to the myth of a war crime he attributed to General John Pershing. The president has repeatedly claimed that Pershing defeated terrorism in the Philippines by ordering the murder of Muslim 49 prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. The fact that this atrocity never happened has been widely stated, but Trump continues to offer it as an object lesson for today.
Trump’s recent abuses of history also include equating the Founding Fathers who owned slaves with Confederates who rebelled against the Union and the insistence that Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years prior to its start, “saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.”
If you see a pattern, you are not mistaken. Trump has repeatedly made strong arguments in defiance of the facts, and these statements have shown him to be callously unconcerned with the pain these statements cause. It is the second part of this habit that is most disturbing in a president. All too often the president seems to abuse history in a way that supports bigotry and ignores his duty to serve all the people and unite a country that has become more divided under his deficient leadership.
Study Trump’s life and it becomes apparent that he is unlikely to change. For decades he made himself ever more isolated from people and ideas that might challenge his preconceptions, until all that he knew was delivered by employees, supplicants, and Fox News. In the process, every building plastered with the name Trump became a self-made monument to the man, which may help explain why he can’t bear to see monuments to others removed. The Oval Office has not changed the lazy habits of his heart and mind, which means we will have to keep ours open and active.
Michael D’Antonio is author of “The Truth About Trump.’’