On the struggle to call Trump what is he is
The president is a white supremacist. I can't believe we're even arguing about it.
This is The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz:
Donald Trump is racist. I’d love to say I don’t know why we have to keep affirming this most basic of basic facts, but I do: It’s because he’s the president of the United States. For those with a crumb of power, pissing off the president can seem like a good way to lose it.
For a lot of (mostly white, all very comfortable) people, it is less terrifying to pretend like this is some kind of open question with a great unknowable answer than to face the reality of who currently has power over the federal government and the most powerful military in the world.
Saying it aloud also risks, ironically enough, offending his supporters, many of whom would like very much to believe they are not racist, because they know racism is bad and at times politically disqualifying, even if they often can’t quite enunciate why.
But how can you possibly know? you might ask. Sure, the president just went on a tirade in which he told a group of black, Puerto Rican, and Arab-American congresswomen to “go back” to the “corrupt and inept” “countries” where they “originally came from”—a form of racism so racist that is literally a textbook example of racism given by the U.S. federal government:
But is it really the job of a journalist to use a label such as “racism” or “racist” to describe a person or thing?
The Long Version
Back in 1946, George Orwell wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
The quote is much-beloved by journalists and internet people in general. But it’s worth remembering the context in which Orwell actually wrote it. At the time, there was a debate in the United Kingdom over allowing immigrants to work in the coal industry. Some commentators, he observed, seemed to be complaining on the one hand about the decline of British coal, while at the same time hollering about Germans and Poles coming to take their jobs.
In his essay, Orwell likened the contradictions between professed concern over coal workers, the decline of the industry killing them, and xenophobia aimed at potential future workers to a form of schizophrenia.
Orwell is best known as a novelist. But he was first and foremost a committed journalist. By that time, he had done exhaustive and groundbreaking work investigating the lives of the British working class generally and the coal industry in particular. A decade earlier, he left London to immerse himself in the impoverished communities of Wigan, Barnsley, and Sheffield, growing his own food and running a country store out of a £2-a-month cottage to get by. He went down into the mines, breathing the coal dust.
Orwell’s point was not the xenophobic capitalists shooting themselves in the foot over immigration were unique. Rather, he wrote:
The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.
The essay included several other examples of the malady: asserting the importance of the newly formed United Nations while keeping it too weak to function, Britons who’d called for standing up to Nazi Germany militarily while opposing a draft, others who’d insisted on throwing troops into Hong Kong knowing that the colony was for all intents and purposes already lost.
“Political predictions are usually wrong,” he observed. “When some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it … But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating.”
Orwell’s solution was a kind of scientific method for journalists. He proposed we keep “a diary, or, at any rate … some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events.” That way, we can check back and see what we got wrong and what we got right, and in so doing refine our processes. (I think he would have gotten a kick out of Twitter.)
Oh my God he said opinions you gasp, as I gently place a hand on your back and we take deep breaths together. Rest assured, reader: Everyone has opinions. It is impossible to stand and observe without a point of view. The process of becoming a journalist is learning not to only, or even primarily, take your own opinions into account. The ones who are good at this learn to move around, taking in as many points of view as is feasible and productive.
In the end, though, we have to take all that observation and communicate it in some form. At that moment, we have stopped moving. Some of us recognize that fact and use the position we are standing in to the best effect we can: revealing hidden truths, sharing the perspective from the bottom of the mine.
Others don’t recognize it, and instead allow themselves to get used. That’s their choice.
Here are some facts in front of us. Donald Trump first appeared in national news when he was accused of systemic discrimination against black tenants. He believes in racist eugenics. He grew up desperately trying to please a father who, years after he was arrested on the sidelines of a Klan rally, was so comically racist that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him:
As Trump the son moved into public life, he made racism a centerpiece of his civic activity. Many black people believed he was racist against them:
Many American Indians believed he was racist against them:
Many Jews believed he was an anti-Semite:
As he moved from punchline to factional leader, Trump built his base as the champion of the racist birther conspiracy theory against America’s first black president. He launched the first and only political campaign of his life with a racist tirade against Latinos, Muslims, East Asians, and others I may have forgotten about.
I predicted at the time that this was the start of a racist, fascistic campaign for president. It was.
I also predicted he would lose. He did not.
Trump used his rallies to inveigh hatred, cheering on supporters while they pummeled protesters—many of them black men and women—in front of him. He strategically hemmed and hawed when asked to disavow the support of prominent white supremacists including David Duke. Those concerned believed that posturing signaled an embrace of what was still a racist fringe. White supremacists did too.
Some people assumed Trump would leave behind this rhetoric as president. I and others predicted he would not. The latter group of us were right. As president, Trump kept his promise of pursuing an unending string of racist policies, including an illegal attempt to ban Muslims from so much as visiting the United States. He has said repeatedly that he only wants white immigrants from Europe—like two of his wives—not “shithole” countries like, well, most of the rest of the world.
Faced with his first domestic crisis, Trump refused to condemn the white supremacists who went on a murderous rampage through Charlottesville in August 2017, apportioning blame to their victims. When this attracted criticism, he made a bland statement condemning “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.” It was so unconvincing that white supremacist kingpin Richard Spencer shrugged it off as “kumbaya nonsense” not meant to be taken seriously. Trump then lashed out, yelling at reporters that he had responded to the Nazi rally “perfectly,” and swore to have experienced an alternate reality in which he had seen “very fine people” at an evening torch-lit rally who were “protesting very quietly”:
Note that some of the Nazis Trump praised were wearing his Make America Great Again hats.
Some of us believed that Trump’s racism and autocratic instincts were so extreme that he could end up running concentration camps.
Trump is now running concentration camps.
Call him by his name
This newsletter is kind of a diary too. I predicted in May that calling Trump’s brown-skinned immigrant punishment dungeons by their proper, historical name—concentration camps—would change the debate:
I don’t know what would happen if news networks defied the administration’s program of distraction and lies. What if we shined a constant, glaring light on places like Dilley, Adelanto, Hutto, and the hundreds of other facilities where “undesirables” are being hidden away? Perhaps people couldn’t disappear so easily into the hieleras. It might be harder to lie about the deaths of children for months. Maybe the camps—and the people languishing in them as you read this—would be the first thing people thought of when they saw Trump scowling on TV.
I got that one right and by God I will not let you forget it. (Though, really, I called for a much more constant spotlight than we’ve gotten so far. Come on, networks!)
So, taking that into account, what is the advantage of saying out loud that the actions and words of Donald John Trump, 45th President of these United States of America, fit the definition of racism as laid out by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the Associated Press Stylebook, and most important of all the people at whom his venom is directed?
My prediction: It will make it harder for him to continually lie about his motives, progressively costlier for others to defend him, and our profession healthier and more honest on the whole. And if I’m wrong, at least I’m on record.
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