President Donald Trump likes to make the false assertion that, perhaps save for Abraham Lincoln, “nobody has ever done for the Black community” what Trump has done. But what he said – or rather, what he didn’t say – during the first 2020 presidential debate on Tuesday illustrated anew just how repellent he is on matters of race.
“Are you willing, tonight, to condemn White supremacists and militia groups and to say they need to stand down?” the moderator, “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace, asked Trump.
Shrugging, the President equivocated.
“Sure, I’m willing to do that. But I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing,” he said.
When Wallace and Biden pressed Trump to be specific in his condemnation, tossing out “White supremacists” and the “Proud Boys” as suggestions, Trump obfuscated.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem,” he said, seemingly giving orders to, instead of disavowing, the far-right collective that the Southern Poverty Law Center says is a hate group.
Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League describes the Proud Boys as misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration.
The group itself claims that it doesn’t have links to White supremacists.
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The fact is, Trump’s base is made up largely of non-college-educated White voters, and he’s long extended open arms to groups pushed to society’s margins for their fringe views. And when the President does try to appeal to Black voters, he makes his pitch in economic terms.
For instance, at a “Black Voices for Trump” event in Atlanta in September, Trump unveiled his light-on-details “Platinum Plan,” which includes a promise of economic development for Black Americans.
But governing isn’t just about strengthening the economy. It’s also about making people, and not only White people, feel safe in their skin, a task that the President has repeatedly failed to accomplish.
According to Department of Homeland Security draft documents, White supremacists will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the country through 2021.
While Trump has tremulously decried racism before, he’s also refused to denounce members of hate groups. In 2017, after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Heather Heyer was killed, the President said that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
The year before, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, endorsed Trump. Trump’s response: “Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with White supremacy or White supremacists.”
Even beyond not bringing himself to outright condemn White supremacy, everything Trump had to say – or not – to Black voters on Tuesday tells you that few believe those who say that he’s not racist.
The debate billed one segment as being about “race and violence in our cities,” a facile framing that was intended to lead to a conversation about race and the anti-Black police violence that’s brought protesters to the streets.
Instead of discussing those topics, though, Trump deflected and sought sanctuary in his usual talking points: Biden’s endorsement of the 1994 crime bill, gauzy appeals to patriotism and “law and order.” Not once did he grapple with the reality of systemic racism.
In the summer of 2016, Trump made a crass pitch to Black voters in the predominantly White suburb of Dimondale, Michigan, urging them to take a chance on his campaign.
“You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed – what the hell do you have to lose?” he asked.
On Tuesday, Black voters seemed to get their answer, as they have so many times over the past four years, as an updated Proud Boys logo circulated online. On it was the President’s “stand by” remark.