The problem with correctly labeling Trump a racist
Two years into Trump's presidency, it's clear calling him a racist won't change minds
Now that we know for certain that the president of the United States is going to spend the next 16 months running for re-election by leading fascist rallies around the country, whipping crowds of thousands into a giddy frenzy of hatred by weaponizing a demonic mixture of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and right-wing ideology, the rest of us confront the question of how best to respond.
The answer isn't obvious.
Consider my long opening sentence above. I enjoyed writing it. There's something undeniably satisfying about naming names, about affixing bold, morally evaluative and condemnatory labels to heinous words and deeds. I called Trump's rally on Wednesday night — an event where his furious demonization of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and calls for her to love-or-leave the United States inspired the crowd to begin a gleefully malicious chant of "send her back" — a fascist rally. Because that's what it was. That doesn't mean I think Trump is a fascist dictator. Thankfully, the institutions of American democracy, though buckling under Trump's presidency, have remained intact, hemming him in in all kinds of ways and rendering him a remarkably weak president, institutionally speaking.
Yet Trump's greatest power — his distinctive political genius — is demagoguery. He's a master of aiming low and succeeding at convincing a segment of the electorate that they should be unashamed and even proud of their basest impulses and prejudices, that they should give into their instinct toward bigotry and animus toward outsiders, even when those "outsiders" are, as in Omar's case, naturalized American citizens. That racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are crucially important and even absolutely necessary ingredients in the toxic stew is obvious to everyone who hasn't morally and intellectually blinded themselves for the sake of partisan gain. (Gee, I wonder why Trump has chosen to demonize and ostracize a handful of dark-skinned, first-term congresswomen instead of the clear Democratic frontrunner who also happens to be white and male. Must just be an innocent coincidence!)
There you have it: Trumpism is undeniably fascistic, racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic.
I'm not just deploying rhetoric, setting up the part of this column where I'll confidently answer the question, telling my readers what should follow the act of labeling the president's appalling words and behavior. I'm asking because I genuinely don't know. And I suspect I'm not alone. There's a reason why so many Trump critics from the Never Trump center-right on through the entire spectrum of the Democratic Party write and say the same things about the president over and over again. Trump is a racist. He's a xenophobe. He's a nativist. He's a misogynist. He's a threat to democracy, a toxin potentially fatal to liberalism. Then repeat. And then again.
It's true that one motivation for this endless cycle of familiar anti-Trump takes is continual irritation at those Republican politicians and right-leaning pundits who endlessly deny the obvious. We all know the assertions: Trump isn't a racist because he didn't mention the color of Omar's skin. His rallies are just a way for his supporters to blow off some steam and have some fun while triggering the libs. The "squad" of left-wing congresswomen takes positions that are un-American, so Trump is right to single them out for abuse. Even if Trump goes too far in his demonization, the president's critics do the same thing in hurling insults like "racist." What about when Hillary Clinton labeled Trump supporters as "deplorable"? And so on.
All of that encourages the conversation to reset over and over again to Step 1: Here are the reasons why Trump is, in fact, a racist. As if repeatedly making the case, as if repeatedly drawing learned historical analogies, as if repeatedly pointing out the ways that Trump fits into a very American tradition of white supremacy that wends its way back into our deepest, darkest past will finally make a decisive difference this time. As if the very act of properly labeling the evil words and deeds might cast a spell that magically defeats them.
The truth, of course, is that Trump speaks for himself — as do his throngs of supporters. More than 50 percent of the country has disapproved of his performance as president since mid-March 2017, and I suspect a solid majority of the country will be utterly appalled by what he will say and do — and by what the participants at his rallies will say and do — over the coming months. His supporters, on the other hand, will eat it up. Occasionally a handful might change their minds, recover their consciences, and drift away from the fascist cosplay. But I doubt very much that this re-evaluation will be inspired or hastened by the umpteenth earnest think piece about how, actually, Trump really is a racist.
You either see it or you don't. When the president of the United States uses his words to shred the social fabric and activate all that is worst in America's past and present in order to advance his personal greed and ambitions, those of us who respond with disgust can and should call it by its proper name. But then we need to say more. Much more — about what else America is and can be, about the future we hope to build together, and about how we intend to heal the wounds intentionally inflicted by the demon in our midst.
That's why the true test will come once the absurdly over-crowded Democratic field gets winnowed down to four or five viable candidates and voters are presented with an illuminating contrast. From one party, an optimistic, open, expansive, civil conversation and debate about all we can and should seek to achieve as a nation. From the other, a grotesque, hateful spectacle, like a Nuremberg rally led by a nativist, know-nothing PT Barnum.
Then it won't matter what labels we use to describe Donald Trump. Voters will confront two starkly different alternatives and face a choice between them. And the truth is we may have no alternative but to believe and hope that they will make the right one.