Originally published by The New York Times
Donald Trump insists he’s not a racist. This is, increasingly, a bit beside the point. What is excruciatingly clear, and what matters most right now, is that he has chosen to ground his politics and his presidency in fomenting racial hatred. Whatever he may feel in his bones, he is an avid race warrior.
That is the meaning of the chant of “Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!” that resounded at his rally in Greenville, N.C., on Wednesday evening. An arena full of President Trump’s supporters roared those words after Mr. Trump aimed their animosity at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who immigrated from Somalia. He smeared her as trafficking in “vicious anti-Semitic screeds” and as a left-wing radical who sympathizes with Al Qaeda, hates America and “looks down with contempt on the hard-working Americans.”
As the xenophobic chant engulfed him, the president paused, basking in the moment. He then went on to attack the three other freshman representatives — women of color, all — who are members of the so-called squad. He suggested that Rashida Tlaib of Michigan “does not love” America and said that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York had declared “contemporary America — that’s you, that’s me, that’s all of us” — to be “garbage.”
On Thursday, as the backlash grew, including even some criticism from congressional Republicans, Mr. Trump scurried to rewrite the scene. “I was not happy with it. I disagree with it,” he said of the chant, claiming to have tried to cut it off by “speaking very quickly.” This is audacious gaslighting, even for this president. For those interested in the truth, video of the episode is a Google search away.
Presidents are not saints, and in a country with such a troubled racial history, even the greatest leaders have fallen short of promoting the principle that all people are created equal. Abraham Lincoln contended for years that the best way to deal with the legacy of slavery would be to ship African-Americans to a colony in Africa or Central America. Woodrow Wilson was an unapologetic racist whose administration expelled black workers from important jobs and infused the federal government with the spirit of white supremacy.
Flash forward to the era of Lyndon B. Johnson. In his first two decades in Congress, Johnson opposed every civil rights bill to come his way — only to turn around and fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and, as president, the more sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964. Historians have thoroughly documented Johnson’s fondness for racial slurs, and some people have suggested that political opportunism rather than moral concerns drove his change of heart. Whatever Johnson’s personal views, he dug in and committed to killing Jim Crow. When White House aides warned him that championing the 1964 bill was a lost cause that would ultimately damage his chances at re-election, he famously replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
What the hell, indeed?
Mr. Trump appears to see the presidency as a giant megaphone for stoking racial and ethnic animus. It is not just that he pursues policies aimed at exacerbating divisions, like banning migrants from majority-Muslim nations or building a wall on the United States-Mexico border. He seeks to demonize those who oppose his policies as dangerous extremists out to destroy America. In cases where his critics are not white — whether congresswomen of color or a judge of Mexican heritage — Mr. Trump is eager to spotlight that fact.
The president is looking to divide Americans along color lines, to conjure a zero-sum vision of America in which whites must contend against nonwhites for jobs, wealth, safety and citizenship. He thinks this approach will win him another four years in the White House. At this point, does it much matter if he is acting purely out of political cynicism, with no element of personal prejudice? The rage he is nurturing and the pain he is causing are all too real. The damage he is doing will take years to undo.