The Republican response to Trump’s racism imagines a Trump who can do better.
In 2015, Lindsey Graham called Donald Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” In the intervening years, Trump has done nothing to refute this characterization, yet Graham has refashioned himself as Trump’s favorite senatorial pet. In the wake of Trump’s latest racist tirade, Graham appeared on Fox & Friends to deliver a supportive pep talk to the president. “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists,” he ranted, in a performance so obsequious that a delighted Trump tweeted outquotations of it in four parts.
The most revealing line in Graham’s commentary, surrounded by repeated smears of Trump’s targets, was his brief exhortation of the president to slightly alter his rhetoric. “Aim higher! We don’t need to know anything about them personally, talk about their policies,” he urged, like a dad motivating his son to go out there and be the best darn racist demagogue he can be.
This interlude in Graham’s homage to Trumpism was obviously so short and mild, Trump wasn’t bothered by it, and possibly didn’t even notice. But it has become a rhetorical trope for Trump’s Republican enablers. When faced with evidence of Trump’s racism, they prefer either to defend him or to say nothing, or, should neither of those options prove tenable, to say as little as possible. (“I’m working as hard as I can to reduce health-care costs. I’m not giving a daily commentary on the president’s tweets,” said Senator Lamar Alexander. “I haven’t read that but I’ll check it out,” promised Senator Richard Shelby.)
When forced to express discomfort, they will disassociate his latest outrage from his character. Trump may have said something racist, his allies will concede, but Trump cannot be a racist.
“We must be better than comments like these,” urged Representative Paul Mitchell. “He should take it down,” suggested Senator Susan Collins. (Trump had already affirmed the comments he tweeted before Collins offered this suggestion.) “Just because the so-called squad constantly insults and attacks the president isn’t a reason to adopt their unacceptable tactics. There is plenty to say about how destructive House Democrats’ policies would be for our economy, our health care system, and our security,” offered Senator Roy Blunt.
Like Graham, these Trump supporters are mixing disappointment with forward-looking optimism. You screwed up, champ, but next time you can do better! Trump’s comments are simply a moment in time, with no past and no future.
In reality, Trump is not going to take down his comments. He’s not going to do better, aim higher, or any other positive-sounding alternative his Republican enablers offer up. Trump’s career began by systematically excluding African-Americans from his father’s housing projects and relentlessly defying federal government orders to stop. He whipped up hysteria against innocent boys accused of rape in Central Park, and has continued to falsely insist upon their guilt. “Donald Trump makes racist comments all the time. Once you know him, he speaks his mind about race very openly,” says Jack O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Another former Trump employee, Michael Cohen, has supplied many more such examples. He keeps saying racist things because he believes them.
Republicans usually avoid acknowledging Trump’s long history of discriminatory actions (it’s the past!) or private racist comments (hearsay!) But because Trump is not clever enough to gauge the point at which his racist insinuations cross the line into the kind of overt racism that will discomfit his party, he sometimes does it in public, too. Famous examples include his insistence that a Mexican-American judge is inherently biased, the Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville included “very fine people,” and his recent attribution of foreignness to nonwhite Democrats in Congress.
Representative Mike Turner has gone further than almost any other Republican by using the word “racist” to describe the president’s comments. But even here, he holds out the phantasmal prospect of repentance. Trump’s “tweets from this weekend,” he scolds, “were racist and he should apologize.”
But Trump is not going to apologize. So what happens then? The answer is that they will continue to support him, perhaps disapprove of his next public racist outburst, and the one after that, repeating the ritual as many times as necessary, until he has finally passed from the public stage. Their ability to identify patterns in his rhetoric and actions, and to cast judgment on his character, ended when he won the election. Trump used to be a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot. Now he is president of the United States.