Trump’s Racism Is No Joke: 4 Times the Donald Got Away With Anti-Black Smears

Ever since Lee Atwater revamped the Republican party messaging machine in the 1980s, the right wing has made something of an art of being as racist as possible while still leaving enough semantic wiggle room for later deniability. No one embodies this ethos more than Donald Trump, who time and time again panders to white racists while managing not to slip up and say the actual off-limits epithets our media confuses for the totality of racist thought.

Ironically, the trait that most likely will keep him from the nomination—his self-parodying clown shtick—is the thing that actually makes his brand of racism so dangerous. Because everything he says and does gets folded into a “Oh, that Donald is such a joke” mold, his racism goes entirely unchecked. But it shouldn’t. Even if one considers Trump a punchline – and he no doubt is – he does have a large, influential platform whether sane people like it or not.

Here are the four worst ways he has used this platform to slander African Americans: 

1. Birther fear-mongering

Trump’s most shameless racial dogwhistling was his almost two-year quest to expose President Obama’s “true” birthplace. Birtherism, the pejorative assigned to those who persist in claiming Obama was not born in America, has long been associated with the extremist wing of the far right. It’s a fringe position that party leaders Karl Rove and Jeb Bush denounce in the severest of terms. Yet somehow its most vocal champion, Donald Trump, was allowed time after time to promote this racist trope. As the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2011:

….it is impossible to miss the racism at work here. This is not Vince Foster. This is not Swiftboating. This is the dude who passed healthcare reform as “the biggest Affirmative Action in history.” This is the whitey tape. This is you are an “Indonesian welfare thug.” This is the host of “Celebrity Apprentice,” questioning the intellect of the past editor of the Harvard Law Review. This is the scion of inherited money as populist, and the scion of a teen single-mother as elitist. This is, if you were white, you and the black dude who came before wouldn’t be here. This is we don’t believe you.

In other words, this is a racism of the bone.

Birtherism was always about race. It was about “othering” a man as American as anyone else. It was about “Africanizing” a man whose journey to the White House was different from the 43 white presidents who went before him. It was about using coded pseudo-controversy to get as close to calling the president the n-word as one could without entirely abandoning their “mainstream” day pass. It was David Duke with better marketing. Yet here we are, a half-dozen interviews in and none of the mainstream press is taking Trump to task for it.

2: Doubting Obama’s Ivy League worthiness.

Again, Trump brilliantly plays into the “white victim” mentality at the heart of the modern Tea Party movement while avoiding anything technically racist. As the AP reported:

Trump: Obama Wasn’t Qualified for Ivy League

“I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m thinking about it, I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.”

Here we have one of the most famous personalities in the country casually floating the idea that the first black president is a fraud, a cheater, and likely some combination of both, and the “objective” press is forced to act like these comments are being made in a historical and political vacuum. This is the nature of dog-whistle racism. Logically, race-baiting is the only explanation for Trump’s baseless smears, but otherwise intelligent people are resigned to act as if it’s just an earnest citizen asking questions about his president. 

3. Central Park Five (before and after they were exonerated).

Both pre-Twitter and post-Twitter Trump would stoke white fears in New York over the Central Park Five case, long after the suspects were found not guilty. The rape and murder case from 1989 had all the elements of white moral panic: a group of black teenagers had allegedly raped a white female jogger in north Central Park and left her for dead. The NYPD were quick to arrest the five black youths and Trump was quick to assert himself into the tragedy by taking out an ad demanding New York bring back the death penalty for “criminals of every age.” As the New York Times reported in 2002 after it turned out the men were in fact innocent:

On May 1, 1989, Donald J. Trump took out full-page advertisements in four New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. Mr. Trump said he wanted the ”criminals of every age” who were accused of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park 12 days earlier ”to be afraid.”

Thirteen years later, as new evidence raises the possibility that the five teenagers convicted in the attack had nothing to do with it, their supporters are focusing some of their fiercest anger at Mr. Trump.”Trump is a chump!” protesters shouted during a recent demonstration, accusing Mr. Trump of, at least, further inflaming passions and perhaps tainting the defendants’ future jurors. Some called him a racist. Supporters of the Central Park defendants have demanded an apology.

To make the situation that worse, Trump doubled down a decade later, writing an op-ed in the Daily Newscalling the city of New York’s $40 million settlement with the Central Park Five a “disgrace.” His smears, per usual, were all hot smoke and entirely baseless sourcing of “friends”:

My opinion on the settlement of the Central Park Jogger case is that it’s a disgrace. A detective close to the case, and who has followed it since 1989, calls it “the heist of the century.”

Again, the question is not “Why is Trump being a racist boob?” but, “Why is the mainstream media providing him a forum to do so?” That the democratic-leaning Daily News would let Trump smear the names of five people found innocent after years of trials, is everything that’s wrong with the media’s relationship with Trump. In the piece Trump never reconciles his being wrong with the new facts, just speaks in racist vagaries:

Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.

The “no angel” line (also used in the Timesdescription of Michael Brown last summer) is a popular dog-whistle when faced with a black man who’s been wrongfully jailed or killed. Confronted with black innocence, the racist mind will insist that by some law of averages, “he was probably guilty of something anyway, so let’s all move on.”

Trump would go on to troll the Central Park Five on Twitter, saying in a now deleted tweet:

To Trump, and a great deal of his 3 million Twitter followers, the only logical reason African-American youths would be in a park at night is to commit a crime. This is just taken for granted in their world. But because it was just vague enough to not sound explicitly racist, it was never brought up again. 

4. Blaming Obama for the Baltimore Uprising

In a week full of racist dog-whistling, Trump still managed to stand out with his gross claim that President Obama—and Baltimore’s black mayor—were somehow responsible for the Baltimore “riots.”

Donald Trump Blames Baltimore Riots on Obama

Celebrity real estate developer Donald Trump is blaming President Barack Obama for the unrest in Baltimore. Trump, a frequent Obama critic, ripped the president on Twitter early Tuesday.

He wrote: “Our great African American president hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are happily and openly destroying Baltimore.”

The whole thing, in typical Trumpian prose, is a muddled mess of innuendo and half-thought. Are we supposed to think Obama is responsible for all 42 million African Americans in the U.S.? What does the President’s lack of a “positive impact” have to do with anything? What does that even mean? Like much of what Trump says he knows that a key part of messaging is simply throwing enough words together and an association will form in the listener’s mind. In this case: Obama equals “thug”.

If Donald Trump were to slip up and utter the n-word, his campaign would be dead the second the word left his lips. Why then, can he say it in a million different ways without consequence? 

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.

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