Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on October 22. It has been updated with Trump’s comments at Benedict College in South Carolina.
Shall we skip right to the obvious? Virtually the only moments when President Donald Trump refers to the pain and persecution of a marginalized group are when he’s talking about his own perceived suffering.
Consider, for instance, Trump’s penchant for using the term “witch hunt,” which he has tossed around hundreds of times since assuming office. Lately, he has tended to employ the phrase to characterize former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election or the current House impeachment probe.
But “witch hunt” has a gendered past – and present. “Recent events show that men with political and economic power can often rely on the idea of witch hunts to work for them, not against them,” as the political scientist Erin C. Cassese wrote for Vox last year. “The witch hunt still uses institutional authority to enforce traditional gender norms and power relations.”
Read more from Brandon Tensley:
- Michael Bloomberg and the tradition of expecting black forgiveness
- Bernie Sanders articulates the quieter complexities of oppression
- Reckoning with the specter of lynching in Trump's America
- Racism, Bernie Sanders and the limits of 'respect'
- The racial politics of gun control
- How Trump speaks to black Americans says a lot about his vision for the country
Twice this week, the President has made comparisons in a similar vein, likening specific examples of bigotry and racial disparity to his own apparent anguish.
“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday about the ongoing, legal impeachment inquiry. “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”
On Friday, while speaking at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Trump appeared to juxtapose his “own experience” with unfair treatment to the continued structural inequality and racism black Americans face within the criminal justice system, saying that he’s being confronted with “an investigation in search of a crime.”
Except: His tweet papered over lynching’s role as a distinct form of racial terrorism used significantly against black Americans, and his claim at Benedict left out how criminal justice in this country is fundamentally uneven.
And yet, these latest iterations of Trump’s queasy, woe-is-me appropriation of victimhood (or as the journalist Jacob Brogan put it for The New Republic in 2017, his invocation of abject helplessness) aren’t surprising. That’s because they’re of a piece with a larger pattern, which is that he cares about black experiences – broadly, abstractly – only when they’re to his benefit.
After all, this is the same President who called places such as Haiti “shithole countries,” excoriated four congresswomen of color by telling them to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” and pointedly dismissed majority-black Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
But who also then spoke in bizarre terms of “my African American” (notably, said person, Gregory Cheadle, has since left the Republican Party), made much of his job approval rating among black Americans (a mere 9%, according to a CNN/SSRS poll) when he pandered to a black audience, and publicly praised the far-right pundit Candace Owens as a “star.”
Which is at least partly why Democrats – traditionally the go-to for black voters – and some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, in particular, have moved quickly to call Trump out, especially on his lynching remark.
“Lynching is a reprehensible stain on this nation’s history, as is this President,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California tweeted on Tuesday. “We’ll never erase the pain and trauma of lynching, and to invoke that torture to whitewash your own corruption is disgraceful.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey: “Lynching is an act of terror used to uphold white supremacy. Try again.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas: “The legacy of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and suppression is alive and well in every part of this country – including in the White House where the president is a white supremacist.”
Republicans’ reactions to Trump’s tweet have been decidedly more mixed. Some, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, have condemned it, while others, such as House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, have expressed mild disagreement without outright rebuking it. Still others, such as Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, have defended Trump.
Of course, Trump isn’t the only one who reliably warps black lives and history in a self-serving manner – he’s his own kind of microcosm of America.
“How careless white America has been with black pain,” The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah tweeted on Tuesday. “The same careless spirit that allows Trump to compare lynching to a constitutional process. The same spirit that sees slave plantations as romantic venues. That spirit that loves black forgiveness after white violence.”
That said, Trump is perhaps the most obvious, most cavalier offender: Regardless of the past – including his own – the former reality television personality will always find a way to make himself the star of the story.