Is Donald Trump a racist? He’s a charlatan and a narcissist, and his presidential campaign marks a further deterioration of our political culture. A Trump presidency would almost surely be a disaster for the republic, with the commander in chief tearing at the country’s delicate social fabric. He attracts racists, and sends racist dog-whistles that the worst of his followers pick up on.
Trump is clearly contemptuous of women, but is he a racist? I don’t think so, or no more than I believe that President Barack Obama is an anti-Semite. Trump’s reputation as a racist rests largely on two particular episodes—one was an alleged attack on Mexicans as rapists, and the other on his call to ban Muslims. As for the first, he didn’t actually say all Mexicans are rapists—he said the Mexican government “is not sending their best” to the United States. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” Trump said last summer. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Yes, the statement was horrendous—though what should really disqualify Trump here is the paranoid conviction that a friendly government on our border is engaged in a conspiracy to destabilize the United States. The reality of course is something that neither Trump nor his critics are apt to discuss: The fact that it is Americans, on the right and left, of every social class and ethnic and racial group, whose drug habits have helped destabilize several Latin American countries.
The second instance of Trump’s supposed racism concerns his ugly, quasi-fascistic call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering, or re-entering, the United States. This came in response to a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, committed by an American citizen and his Pakistani wife who was holding an American visa. Rather than honoring and mourning the 14 victims, Trump used the moment as a stage to advance a gross and likely unconstitutional position for political gain.
Then, grotesquely, the White House did exactly the same thing Trump did. Rather than observe the silence that the dead deserved, the administration looked first to score political points with its own base by dispatching Attorney General Loretta Lynch to threaten prosecutions for anti-Muslim rhetoric. It appears that this is how Obama means to bolster his pro-Muslim bona fides—suggest everyone else in America hates Muslims, so no one will notice how many hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Syria and elsewhere have died on your watch.
One of the reasons why Democrats seem so determined to tag Trump as a racist is to put as much distance between themselves and the boorish Republican front-runner as they can, in order to disguise how similar his thuggish “realism” and blind, narcissistic disregard for others is to the past seven years of U.S. foreign policy. In June 2009, Iranians took to the streets to protest against almost certainly rigged elections. When the regime started firing on peaceful protestors, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president said nothing. It was less than two weeks after the Cairo speech, Obama’s reset with the Muslim world, and he said nothing when the regime filled Iranian streets with the blood of its youth.
Why didn’t Obama speak up for these Muslims? As a former administration official later told The New Yorker, Obama was concerned that siding with the protesters might drive the regime from the negotiating table and spoil his chances for a deal. As Trump himself might say: Big-time deal-makers don’t sweat the small stuff.
Indeed, it’s worth asking: Who is actually more contemptuous of Muslim lives, Donald Trump or Barack Obama? The former can’t find a thoughtful way to propose that maybe America shouldn’t indiscriminately grant refuge and eventually U.S. citizenship to women and children who are fleeing from a war zone where combatants are eating each other’s livers. He seems to think all Muslims are terrorists in waiting, and so does the president. As he told Jeffrey Goldberg, unlike young Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans “yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth,” Muslims are “thinking about how to kill Americans.” Explaining why he has done nothing to stop a genocide against Sunni Muslims in Syria, Obama said that Muslims are beset by “ancient sectarian differences … and that’s why we’re not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else’s war.”
Obama thinks that Muslim lives—by the hundreds of thousands—aren’t even worth a no-fly zone. They weren’t worth a buffer zone, which would’ve kept them safe inside Syria rather than having to take their chances at sea. Sure, Muslim children drowned, but Obama knew he had to respect Iranian “equities” in Syria if he wanted a deal with Tehran. And they certainly weren’t worth more to him than his signature foreign policy achievement, the JCPOA, which it is easy to imagine spelled out in ten-foot-high gold spray-painted letters outside the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago, like one of those tacky signs outside the insecure, egomaniacal real estate mogul’s smoked-glass towers.
Like Trump, Obama knows that the people around him are simply props and chumps. As most of his cabinet argued on behalf of arming the opposition to save Syrian lives, according to the New York Times, Obama chewed gum and checked his blackberry. As he later sneered to Thomas Friedman, the Syrians were just “doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.” What chance did they have against “a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah”? Strength respects strength, and has contempt for weaklings.
I imagine that Trump would see eye-to-eye with Obama here, too. Indeed, to paraphrase the author of The Art of the Deal, maybe it was actually a good thing for America if Muslims killed each other in Syria. A war “between Hezbollah and al-Qaida would work to America’s advantage,” said Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough—which is a slightly less coarse version of Sarah Palin’s “Let Allah sort it out.”
While Trump insists that he could have gotten a better deal with Iran, based on his superior negotiating skills and the magnetism of his alpha male pheromones, he can say so in part because he and Obama are actually on the same page when it comes to these Third-World pathetics—who they both seem to believe should stay in their human cesspool, for which America is definitely absolutely not responsible. Obama admits the deal was never intended to moderate Iran. He told Jeffrey Goldberg that he likes “smart autocrats”—i.e., not moderates interested in giving voice to their own people, but hardliners who will imprison, torture, rape and murder their subjects, Muslims, to safeguard their power.
And if the idea that Trump “hates Muslims” any more than Obama lacks any discernable basis in fact, then the problem with Trump is that he’s cruder, right? But again, that’s depressingly hard to argue. To secure his foreign policy achievement, Obama accused everyone who disagreed with him of being dishonest, stupid, or partisan. Or their concerns weren’t “based on what’s in the national interests of the United States of America.” Gee, whose interests could it possibly be in, then? Who were the “donors and others,” that Obama said U.S. senators were beholden to?
Unlike Trump (at least so far), Obama got friendly media organizations to join in with his racist dog-whistling, like the New York Times, which described the legitimate concerns of JCPOA skeptics as “the unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader against their own commander in chief.” Gee, who did the Times mean, since virtually every American ally had qualms with the JCPOA? Why, they meant the prime minister of Israel! John Kerry himself explained it very clearly. If congress rejected the deal, Kerry said, Israel would be to blame. Because we all know about the Jewish state, and its money, its lobby, and the clever ways it plays on the dual loyalties of American Jews.
Obama isn’t an anti-Semite, any more than Trump is a racist. But like Trump, he also knows how to reach certain dark corners of American society where he knew his insinuations would resonate for political gain. Obama used that language, too, and he won the political fight for the Iran deal. Then the president gave tens of billions of dollars to a political order in Iran that is organized around hatred—anti-Semitism, anti-Sunni, anti-Arab, anti-American. So who is winning? The haters are.
So of course the rants, and the threats, will get worse and louder and more popular and more dangerous because that’s the America that Barack Obama is passing on—a divided, tribal country where citizens are regularly impugned on the basis of their religion, skin color, income levels, party affiliation, or whatever other characteristics will help a politician gain and keep power.
But don’t blame Obama for that. It’s not his fault, because it’s always someone else’s fault. Trump, as Obama told a crowd in Austin, Texas last week, is on the Republicans—a reflection of their rotten culture. The commander in chief who has used the oval office as a soapbox to publicize his opinions on nearly every subject under the sun—from rap stars to a Cambridge beat cop’s foolishly arresting one of the country’s leading intellectuals, and from NCAA basketball brackets to the Academy Awards—has nothing to do with how the country now looks and sounds after 7 years of him holding the conch.
And in truth, Obama is right. No one in America is responsible for anything these days. George W. Bush isn’t responsible for starting two wars and failing to win either one of them. The American people bear zero responsibility for the 2008 economic crisis, touched off by a nationwide Ponzi scheme in the housing market. Blame Wall Street, says Bernie Sanders. And don’t blame “The Bern” if his own dusty textbook version of “socialist economics” somehow fails to bring instant prosperity to a 21st century information-age economy. That failure would also be on someone else—like the tech moguls, or hedge funds.
And don’t blame Donald Trump if racists love him too. Nothing is Trump’s fault, just like nothing is Obama’s fault, because they’re the same guy—narcissists who overvalue their own intelligence, exaggerate their achievements, and blame others for their failures. And that’s exactly what America deserves right now—because that’s the nation that we’ve become.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).