UPDATE: Trump gave a press conference Tuesday during which he essentially unsaid all the good things he asserted in his speech Monday. While he claimed he still condemned neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he also said there were “many fine people” protesting alongside the people carrying swastika flags and shields bearing racist symbols. He expressed clearly his opposition to taking down Confederate monuments. He once again blamed both sides equally for the violence that broke out. He confirmed his complete inability to understand what systemic racism is and his own role in perpetuating it.
The moment that struck me in Trump’s make-up speech Monday afternoon wasn’t when he declared racism “evil” or finally name-checked the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It was his remark about the flag. “No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws,” he said. “We all salute the same great flag.”
Maybe Trump should have watched the news a little more closely this weekend. If he had, he might have seen large numbers of Americans carrying and saluting flags that weren’t the Stars and Stripes. Confederate flags, obscure racist insignia and straight-up swastikas were all on display.
The racists and Nazis and white supremacists of all stripes who carried that flag were heartened by Trump’s failure to denounce them or their ideology in the immediate aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer. And his tepid, reluctant, TelePrompTer-fed denunciation of racism days later appears to have done little to discourage their belief that he supports them in the deepest, darkest, most wizened recesses of his heart.
Though it’s technically true that no one but Donald Trump knows what’s in Donald Trump’s heart, he’s given us some pretty good clues. He likely thinks swastika-toting Nazis and hood-wearing KKK members are bad guys – those are the easy targets everyone knows we’re supposed to denounce – but the entitled, clean-cut, polo-wearing, torch-bearing racists chanting about how they won’t be replaced? Those are the people who put him into office. They’re his people. And they know he’s their leader because they know Donald Trump is, like they are, racist.
Oh, they wouldn’t put it that way. They think the real racism is the affirmative action that gives people of colour a chance in a world that hands people who look like me privilege from birth. They believe the real racists are the ones who declare black lives matter. (“What, ours don’t?”) But like the president they cheer, they’re racist as hell.
You don’t even have to look into Trump’s heart to see his racism. You only have to look at all the things he’s done and said over the years – from the early Seventies, when he settled with the Justice Department over accusations of housing discrimination, to Monday, when just hours after his speech news broke he is considering pardoning anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio was also Trump’s partner in crime in pushing the birther conspiracy that promulgated the ugly lie our first black president was born in Kenya. We’ve conveniently forgotten (if not forgiven) how Trump spent years – years! – pushing a conspiracy based on nothing more than the assumption that a black man with a funny name couldn’t possibly be a genuine American, not like we are.
Trump also has a weird obsession with the superiority of his own genes in the face of all evidence to the contrary. That may explain why racism so often seems like his default setting, like the time he took out a full-page ad demanding the execution of five kids of colour accused of raping a jogger in Central Park. Even in 2016, years after they were proven innocent, Trump stood by his actions.
Last year was when Trump put his racism on full display for the country to see. From launching his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, to going to war with the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in battle, to encouraging violence against minority protesters at his rally, to promising to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, he built a presidential campaign on racial resentment and fear. Those were deliberate choices he made. His campaign stoked white entitlement and outrage at every turn, sending out dog whistles and sometimes glaring billboards that this was the campaign for angry white people.
He didn’t improve as president. There was no pivot. Just weeks ago, he gave an ugly speech to a group of police officers during which he described gang violence in creepy, almost loving detail in a ham-handed attempt to smear immigrants as violent criminals. He started a commission to perpetuate the myth of rampant voter fraud – part of a long-running conservative scheme to deny black people and others their right to vote.
And just hours after he grudgingly gave his speech condemning racism in the wake of enormous public pressure, Trump retweeted Jack Prosobiec, a prominent alt-right figure who’s been featured on the racist conspiracy site Infowars and who brought a sign reading “RAPE MELANIA” to a protest to frame anti-Trump activists.
The same day Trump called racism “evil,” he mollified his base of racists by promoting a racist on his huge platform. These are not the actions of a man who is genuinely concerned about racism.
His speech wasn’t enough. It’s not just that it came three days too late, or that he read it with all the conviction of a hostage video. If Donald Trump wants to say anything meaningful about racism, he needs to acknowledge his own complicity. He has to admit to his past sins, and commit to a future of activism from the most powerful perch in the world to fight racism in all its forms. And I’m not holding my breath for that.
Racism isn’t limited to the thugs marching in Charlottesville. It pervades American culture like humidity in the D.C. summer air. You don’t get to say guys in hoods are bad and declare the job done. For white people, fighting racism (and all bigotry) must be a constant effort that includes self-reflection.
Self-reflection isn’t Trump’s strong point. He may well believe it when he says he’s the least racist person in the world. But we don’t need to read his mind to know the truth. He has built a legacy of race-baiting throughout his career – from his apartment buildings in the outer boroughs right into the White House.