President Trump's attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color known as "the Squad" this week appeared to mark a turning point in some people's understanding of the depths of Trump's racism.
For example, after Trump told these women to "go back" to the countries from which they came, Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for President Obama and host of Pod Save America, claimed that "We're not ready for how ugly he's going to make 2020." More than 6,000 people have retweeted this sentiment. Writer Jared Yates Sexton tweeted almost verbatim: "I don't think anyone's prepared for how ugly and racist and dangerous the 2020 Campaign is going to be." Vox writer Sean Illing agreed, saying, "2020 is going to be so much uglier than people think. Jesus." George Conway — husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway — declared Trump "a racist president" in The Washington Post. Writing for The New Yorker, David Remnick wrote forebodingly about "the racist in the White House."
To all of these observers, I say: Welcome, gentlemen. Where the hell have you been?
Trump's history of aggressive acts of racism is long. In a press conference on Monday, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar — with fellow Squad members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) behind her — gave America a brief recap: "Right now, the president is carrying out mass deportations across the country ... committing human rights abuses at the border, keeping children in cages, and having human beings drink out of toilets ...This is a president who has called black athletes "sons of bitches"... called people who come from black and brown countries 'shitholes' ... equated neo-Nazis with those who protested against them in Charlottesville."
There's more, of course. The evidence contradicting Trump's proclamation that he doesn't have "a Racist bone in my body!" is vast and damning. Yet it seems many men who've made a career of observing and participating in the political process are suddenly gobsmacked. Have they been sleeping on Trump's penchant for bigotry? Has this latest tirade — or the bigoted chants of "Send her back!" at a Trump rally Wednesday night — suddenly opened their eyes? People who are not white men — or, yes, half of white women — have been painfully aware of Trump's White is Right philosophy all along, and they've been sounding the alarms.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump's "shithole" comment in January 2018, Jamelle Bouie chronicled for Slate exactly how "Donald Trump is a racist," listing his many indiscretions up until that point and laying bare the cold, hard facts: "President Trump is a racist. It was clear on Thursday, when he made his remarks about Haiti, and it was clear last month, when he made his comments about Nigeria. It was clear when he went on his 'birther' crusade against Barack Obama. It's been clear for as long as he's been in the public eye, from when he was investigated by the Department of Justice for housing discrimination in the 1970s to when he demanded execution for five black and Latino teenagers who had been accused, falsely, of attacking and a raping a white woman in New York City in the 1980s."
That last bit refers to the Exonerated 5 (formerly the Central Park 5): Director Ava Duvernay's recent Emmy-nominated Netflix series When They See Us about the case brought Trump's keen interest in and insistence on their guilt back into the fore, and still he refuses to admit he was wrong to attack them.
But we don't need any self-reflection on Trump's part to know racism when we see it.
Why are white people — particularly white men — only now taking umbrage at Trump's callousness? Is it because they have the least to lose from a Trump presidency? Perhaps. Is it because they've been wilfully ignoring the warning signs? Maybe. But let's, for a moment, give our white male friends the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps what they mean to say is that in his latest attack on four congresswomen of color, Trump was flexing, and showing that he's going to play dirty, that his 2020 strategy will be a no-holds-barred approach to politics. To that, I must ask again: Where the hell have you been? Remember when Trump straight-up called Mexicans rapists during his 2016 campaign? Remember when, right before taking the stage in a 2016 presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump livestreamed an appearance with three women who had previously accused her husband, Bill Clinton, of sexual impropriety? Or when he invited Russia to hack Clinton's emails? How about when he praised a Republican congressman for body-slamming a reporter?
Trump's malignancy has always been a feature, not a bug, and he will use it boundlessly to rouse his base for 2020. His recent foray into abject racism is merely a rehash of his earlier work. To be surprised at this point by Trump's racism requires some combination of ignorance and amnesia. And if you consider yourself among the shocked, maybe it's time to take a backseat and let others with greater awareness lead the way.