Not that we needed more proof — but Donald Trump’s recent tweets yet again showcase the president of the United States as flagrant racist. That’s depressing. What’s more depressing is that Trump sees no need to cloak his ugliest instincts; indeed, they are key to his appeal.
It’s a privilege of skin color to still be surprised by the accuracy of Trump’s calculation about what apparently motivates millions of American voters. Sure, he won 62 million votes in 2016, but Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more. By now, shouldn’t much of the country be so repulsed by his cruel policies toward migrants and crude barbs about people of color, including elected representatives, that four more years of Trump is impossible to imagine? In fact, his approval rating has gone up since his recent slew of racist tweets.
His Twitter-generated racism is authentic Trump. And authentic Trump is the underpinning of a grand strategy that not only reinforces his base but also strives to grow it. There are swing voters out there with prejudices he will happily tap into. Republican presidential candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan hit the same buttons, but a little more subtly. In 1988, George H.W. Bush ventured into more blatantly racist territory with the infamous Willie Horton ad. The ad, created by a political action committee that supported Bush in his campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis, featured Horton, a black man and convicted murderer who fled Massachusetts, while on a weekend furlough program that existed while Dukakis was governor. The escapee went on to rape a woman and attack her fiancée during a brutal home invasion.
The ad, often cited as an example of “dog whistle” politics, was designed to encourage voters to believe that during a Dukakis presidency, black criminals like Horton would be set loose. As Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater famously said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.” After being diagnosed with brain cancer, Atwater apologized to Dukakis via a Life magazine article that also included a denial that he was racist.
From the moment he announced his presidential run with a broadside about Mexico sending rapists here, Trump hasn’t bothered with dog whistles or apologies. He sees no need to hide behind a campaign manager or PAC. He lets his tweets speak for themselves. Are they purely spontaneous expressions of animus toward black and brown people? No, they are calculated expressions of genuine animus toward black and brown people, timed with care to gin up the Trump base and reach out beyond it.
Like Atwater tying Horton to Dukakis, Trump and his behind-the-scenes allies want to tie the Democratic presidential contenders for 2020 to what they regard as comparable negatives: the “the Squad” of four progressive minority congresswomen; US Representative Elijah Cummings, who is also African-American, and the Baltimore-based district he represents; and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has a history of involvement with race-based controversies.
It’s all about pitting white America against black and brown America, on the basic theory that white America is superior. Will Trump’s bet pay off? Will his hateful and divisive message propel him to another four years in office. It could, but it doesn’t have to. You can accept that we all have prejudices and biases, yet still believe that as a country we can get beyond them.
Perhaps it’s also a privilege of skin color to want to believe there are enough voters out there who are sick of Trump and his racist tweets — and just listening for the voice of reason, maturity, and moral authority that can challenge him.