President Trump is being castigated for having “failed” the test of the Presidency this week. After a horrific murder and mass injury attack by a neo-Nazi terrorist in Charlottesville, VA, he did not make a speech that would bring people together and bind up their wounds.
Asked to roundly condemn the ideology and symbols of hatred and racism on display in Charlottesville, he did so with hesitation and restraint, simply saying that of course Nazism and white supremacy are evil. But while criticizing those ideals, he defended the people who marched alongside the Nazi flags, saying many were “fine people” and no different from the anti-hate groups who also came out with pepper spray and clubs to defend themselves from the heavily armed alt-right demonstrators.
Does this instinctive reluctance to criticize alt-right demonstrators make the President a racist or Nazi-sympathizer? I don’t think so. I think the President is sincere when he claimed “I am the least anti-Semitic person you have ever seen,” and “the least racist person.”
A racist is someone who believes ALL individuals of a certain race are dangerous or inferior; and in the extreme case someone who wants to create racial purity in their own society by expelling or killing all those not of the favored, superior race. Hitler and those who followed him were racists; the Jim Crow enthusiasts who erected most of the Confederate War statues were racists; and most of those who fought for the South and the Southern cause were racists. Racism is expressed succinctly in the words of the ironically named Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, in his cornerstone speech on the South’s constitution: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
In this sense, Donald Trump is definitely NOT a racist or anti-Semite. He has many good friends who are Black; he has married his daughter into a Jewish family and appointed many Jews and Blacks to positions in his administration. I believe he genuinely respects and enjoys the company of these people, and would never see himself as a “hater” of those individuals.
Yet one can avoid racism, and still be severely bigoted. A bigot is someone who, while accepting people who she knows personally as good people regardless of their background, nonetheless holds stereotypical views of other ethnic and religious groups, and applies these stereotypes to those of the group whom she does not know. Some of these stereotypes may even seem positive to the bigot — such as that Jews are good with accounting, or Blacks are exceptional athletes. But they are stereotypes nonetheless. And most bigots have negative stereotypes, which prevail especially when members of other ethnic or religious groups seem to pose a threat or interfere with the bigot’s goals. In those cases, the entire ethnic group and “most” members of it are deemed to be hostile, dangerous, or suspicious.
It is these negative stereotypes that Trump seems to hold enthusiastically, seeing illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and gang members; Muslim immigrants as potential terrorists; and Blacks as creating carnage in America’s “inner cities” (when in fact “inner cities” are now increasingly gentrified and white, while gangs and violence are moving to the suburbs and outer urban rings). The stereotype of the fraudster getting food stamps or other welfare support who nonetheless drives a fancy car has been a popular Republican trope for decades — even though the resident of a poor Black or Hispanic neighborhood who displays conspicuous wealth is likely to be, or be close to, a drug dealer, pimp, or numbers runner, not a struggling mother who depends on government support to provide for her children.
Trump not only has racial and religious stereotypes, but political ones as well. Democrats and leftists are “bad people” who oppose his plans to fix what is wrong with America. They are just as dangerous as any other enemies to America’s heartland. (But the Hispanics and Blacks who Trump believes voted for him, in large numbers in his imagination, are great people!) Trump’s Alt-right supporters, on the other hand, are simply people who share Trump’s view that the left has given away too much of America’s wealth to foreigners and undeserving minorities, hurting upstanding and loyal Americans. Sure, extreme rightists may be horrible Nazis and white supremacists who would even threaten his Jewish family and Black friends, and it is right to criticize them. But in Trump’s view most of the people marching to protest removal of Confederate statues must be good Americans who are fighting the efforts of un-American leftists to erase local history. So of course there had to be “very fine people” on both sides and very bad people on both sides as well, in the Charlottesville melee.
I therefore am not one of those who labels Trump as a neo-Nazi sympathizer or a racist. Rather, he is an all-American bigot, who relies on stereotypical views of political, racial, and religious groups to simplify a complex world that is hard for him to understand.
The problem is that the art of governing, especially in a diverse nation with rich links of history and trade to much of the world, requires understanding different points of view and being able to bridge differences. To a bigot, the only point of view that has validity is his own, especially when embraced by friends and family members of diverse backgrounds. The idea that other people could have, en masse, equally sound but different viewpoints, or that it is necessary to understand different viewpoints and find common ground, is unacceptable.
It is this narrowness of viewpoint, which results in lashing out at those who differ in their views, that makes Trump unfit to be an effective President, and which will likely doom his Presidency.