President Trump traveled to Dallas on Thursday afternoon for a roundtable discussion somewhat confusingly titled, “Transition to Greatness: Restoring, Rebuilding, and Renewing.” The “transition to greatness” framing emerged as Trump was trying to persuade Americans to put the coronavirus pandemic behind them and get back to normal economic activity; the president who had made America “great again” and urged 2020 voters to “keep America great” was pledging, six months before the election, a new transition to that same greatness.
The Dallas event, though, was necessarily focused not on the virus and the economy but on the reemergence of police treatment of black Americans as a national issue. So the White House rolled that into the transition process, and the event centered on proposals for decreasing racial disparities while broadly defending the status quo.
Introducing the event — to which the local sheriff, district attorney and police chief were not invited, although all are black — Trump offered a broad assessment of both the problem and the solution. It was a remarkable statement, a blend of prepared remarks and off-the-cuff interjections, which, better than nearly anything else I’ve seen, distilled Trump’s approach to the politics of race and, to a large degree, that of many of his supporters.
Here’s what Trump said.
We can start by noting the extremely Trumpian transition from his concern that discussions of race tend to “get off subject” with people thinking about things “that don’t matter much” — to then bashing politicians for trying to distract from their own failed records. He went on to offer criticisms clearly aimed at former vice president Joe Biden specifically and Democrats broadly, including riffs on trade. Getting off subject, indeed.
It’s the first part of the statement, though, that so perfectly captures a particular view of race relations to which Trump is deeply sympathetic.
Americans are inherently good, Trump says, and sweeping allegations of racism only impede efforts to heal racial problems. “Get everyone together” — something that can be done “very easily” — and there will be no problems.
It’s obviously self-serving for Trump to want people to be slower to suggest that someone is racist. Most Americans view Trump as racist, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last July. More than 8 in 10 black Americans hold that view of Trump, according to a Post-Ipsos poll from January. Similar views predate Trump’s election. In early September 2016, for example, we learned that more than 4 in 10 Americans believed Trump was racist, including 7 percent of those who planned to vote for him anyway.
Trump wasn’t saying not to call anyone racist, though. It would be hard for him to do so without being hypocritical, should that offer any pause for the president. After all, Trump in the past has identified the following as racist: Barack Obama, television producer Danny Zuker, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, Touré, Bryant Gumbel, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Spike Lee, a group of Democratic legislators including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Debra Messing, the late Maryland congressman Elijah E. Cummings and the retail chain Macy’s. This doesn’t total “tens of millions of Americans,” the level to which Trump objects, but it’s substantially more than zero.
At the heart of Trump’s insistence that Americans are good and should not be labeled as bigots is a conflation of “racism within society” and “members of society are racist.” We’ve seen this pattern repeatedly as the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has put an emphasis on systemic problems within policing. It does not need to be the case that a majority — or any — of the members of a police department are racist for the system itself to exhibit racism. The chip inside the device on which you’re reading this article and the screen on which it appears don’t need to understand the words being shown in order to show them; parts of a system can contribute to a result without doing so intentionally.
In part, this idea that criticizing a system or parts of society as racist means indicting the people within that system or society as racist stems from a misunderstanding of what’s being argued. But it is also at times an intentional bit of rhetoric, an attempt to undermine the criticism by personalizing it. People are a lot less likely to support reforms aimed at uprooting racism if they are told that accepting those reforms means accepting their own culpability.
Over time, this conflation of opposition to systemic racism with the idea that white Americans are broadly being accused of being racist has become ingrained among many conservative Americans. Trump’s base in particular is more likely than other groups to believe that they are victims of discrimination — discrimination that accuses them of being racist and that elevates the needs of nonwhites over their own needs. Polling has repeatedly demonstrated that Trump voters are more likely to believe in “reverse racism” — racism targeting whites — and to believe that nonwhites are no more subject to discrimination than whites and to feel that whites are losing out to nonwhites in a vague struggle for resources and success.
They’re good Americans and abhor racism in the traditional Klan-robe-and-colored-drinking-fountain sense, so why are they being held accountable for the plight of black Americans? One answer, of course, is that white Americans are more likely to see inherent benefits from American society than nonwhites. There’s racism within the system, from which whites can benefit even as they sincerely express objection to racism against nonwhites.
Trump’s solution? Get everyone together, a thoroughly meaningless phrase. What’s more, it’s an idea that, far from being something Trump can do “easily,” has continually eluded Trump’s capabilities or interest. Trump understands that presidents are supposed to talk about unity, so he talks about unity — but he doesn’t really care about actually doing it. He talks about unity in the same way that he reads prepared remarks that offer vaguely traditional sentiments. He says them because he’s supposed to and then he tweets the things that he wants.
Racism in American society — both explicit and implicit — is real and obvious to those interested in seeing it. Trump has never expressed much interest in seeing it. His interest is simpler: defend himself and his base and offer some platitudes to soothe the waters for a bit as we move forward. Get this racism concern and the virus behind us and get back to selling things and trade deals and so on.
After all, there’s an election coming up.
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