Professor, writer, columnist and novelist.
Professor, writer, columnist and novelist.
(From left) Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, respond to racial remarks by Donald Trump during a news conference in Washington. AP
President Donald Trump’s vicious verbal assaults on four women of colour who are members of Congress have sparked an avalanche of well-earned criticism, including from some of his supporters. As regular readers know, I’m fascinated by history, so I’ve been wondering where Trump’s tweeted comments rank among the most racist ones made by presidents (or successful presidential candidates) during my lifetime.
Let’s start with what Trump said. He attacked the quartet as people “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all).” He added: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
This is dreadful stuff. Three of the four were born in the US, so they’re already in the places from which they came, but in the first place, “Go back where you came from” was already a racist rallying cry when I was a kid, during the early years of integration. If the president of the United States is unaware of that history, Heaven preserve us.
OK. So much for this past weekend. Now for my other contenders for most racist comment (again, I include those made by candidates only if they won):
Fourth place: In 1983, during debate over the establishment of a national holiday to honour Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Ronald Reagan commented that “we will know in about 35 years” whether King was a Communist sympathizer. This was a reference to the sealed files containing records of the FBI’s surveillance operation against the civil rights icon.
Reagan was echoing a theme popular along the right fringe of his day. In a letter to former New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thompson, leaked around the same time, Reagan suggested that the push for a holiday was “based on an image, not reality.” Historians have since dismissed claims that King was a Communist as nonsense.
Reagan telephoned Coretta Scott King to offer a personal apology and signed the holiday bill, after which the controversy largely faded.
Third place: In April 1980, Reagan, not yet even his party’s nominee, stood at the Neshoba County Fair, a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were massacred in the sixties, and declared his support for states’ rights. A storm of criticism followed. Here’s the key passage: “I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment.”
Over the years, Reagan’s many defenders have insisted that he has been misunderstood. He was expressing “a rather mainstream sentiment,” we’re told. Or, as a well-known 2007 essay by Deroy Murdock explains: “Examined honestly, the diabolical phrase, ‘state’s rights,’ ... dissolves into an innocuous call for Conservatism 101: A smaller federal government with revenues and public programs left as close to the people as possible.”
But David Brooks, even as he agreed in a 2007 column that Reagan’s speech has been badly misrepresented, nailed the actual problem with the future president’s words: “It’s callous, at least, to use the phrase ‘states’ rights’ in any context in Philadelphia.”
Exactly. Reagan needn’t have been trying to win racist votes; he could simply have been careless. But carelessness on so grand a scale — a failure to understand the significance of the words in that place and at that time — bespeaks at minimum a titanic ignorance of the language around which the horrific and violent struggle for equality was being waged.
Second place: Jimmy Carter (also, at the time, a candidate for the presidency) said during a news conference in 1976 that he would not try to alter the “ethnic purity” of neighbourhoods. He pledged not to “use the federal government’s authority deliberately to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods.” Lest he be misunderstood, he used the specific examples of “black intrusion” and “alien groups.”
I’ve always admired Jimmy Carter, but he said what he said. After being hammered by both primary opponents and his own staff, Carter apologised two days later. He also rushed to endorse the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill that he had previously opposed. As president, Carter generally supported a strong civil-rights agenda. Still, the sting of “ethnic purity” lingers.
That might have been the worst, if not for ...
First place: Trump, then a candidate, was challenged in 2016 by Pakistani-Americans Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son had died while serving in the US military in Iraq. During the Democratic National Convention, the Khans took the stage to lambaste Trump for negative comments about Muslim immigrants. Asked about the criticism later, the candidate was obtuse and offensive: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
Trump was skewered by critics, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and many in his own party. Ghazala Khan responded that it was grief, not religion, that caused her to stand silently beside her husband. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, said exactly the right thing — “Donald Trump and I believe that Captain Humayun Khan is an American hero and his family, like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American” — but Trump himself never quite managed to climb past his own thin-skinned pigheadedness.
That’s my list. Where should Trump’s latest vileness rank? I’ll leave that up to the reader, but it’s certainly a contender for a top spot. In any event, I have a prediction about the future.
Unlike Carter, Trump is unlikely to endorse policies he once opposed to try to prove he’s no racist. Trump isn’t classy enough to apologise, as Carter did in 1976 and Reagan did in 1983. He’s also not bold enough to go out of his way to visit black leaders and address black organisations to assure them of his commitment to equality, as Reagan did in 1980.
No. Trump is going to stay Trump, pretending that all his troubles are the fault of his enemies, making no effort to control the offensive nonsense that too often tumbles from his mouth.
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