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Donald Trump Has Blown Up Republicans’ Racism Defense

He's as much a product of regular conservatism as he is of the alt-right.

David Becker/Getty Images

Discussing this election is a challenge even for people whose lifeblood is elections, because so many of its participants and observers react to the introduction of clarity as if it were foreign tissue.

Speaking in Reno, Nevada, on Thursday, Hillary Clinton laid out in painstaking detail all the ways Donald Trump is mainstreaming racial hatred in the country, and facilitating the white-nationalist right’s efforts to supplant the leadership of Republican Party.

“This is what I want to make clear today,” she said. “A man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far reaches of the internet, should never run our government or command our military.”

Clinton’s comments hit pretty close to the mark, but the subject matter made them extraordinary, and thus alien—unconformed to the conventions of partisan campaigning.

Consider these blinkered responses from across the political system.

  • Anticipating the speech, the Associated Press compared her plan to note Trump’s actual embrace of a real fringe movement to Trump-camp conspiracy theories like birtherism. “Clinton has largely avoided discussing the conspiracies, leaving it to members of her campaign team or allies. But she is preparing a Reno, Nevada, address on Thursday that will accuse Trump of supporting an “alt-right” campaign that presents “a divisive and dystopian view of America.”
  • Trump himself attempted to neutralize Clinton’s detailed critique by repeatedly calling her a “bigot” who takes minority votes for granted.
  • Faced with dueling but by no means equivalent accusations of racism, The Washington Post threw up its hands and declared itself unable to adjudicate the he-said-she-said: “Clinton, Trump exchange racially charged accusations.”
  • Most tellingly, Republican Party leaders, who would normally be called upon to defend their nominee, said nothing. Not a word. A tacit admission that her critique captured something very real.

Silence was effectively the only option available to these Republicans. Disputing Clinton’s premise or any of her particulars would have drawn them into a losing debate over whether she had the goods on Trump, which she did. But this deer-in-headlights moment also grew out of something less pragmatic: Trump’s undisguised bigotries have robbed conservatives of the standard defenses they’d normally mount on behalf of a Republican standard bearer accused of racism.

Clinton’s efforts to reach anti-Trump Republicans is working, but only by positing a pre-Trump paradigm that overstates his novelty. Trump’s only defenders last week were himself and his truest believers. But the nature of their responses was so familiar that it likely made anti-Trump Republicans uncomfortable.

Before Trump came along, it was black-letter law on the right that racism was an overstated problem, minor when held up against the more prevalent sin of false accusations of racism.

One characteristic episode occurred in 2014 when, after losing the vice presidency, then–House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan described inner city poverty on a conservative talk radio show as the product of a “tailspin of culture ... of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Liberals were quick to characterize these comments as a dog whistle, and most continue to interpret the comments that way. Ryan swore the racial tinge of his comments “never even occurred to me!” Conservatives rushed to his defense. Conservative columnist Noah Rothman called the backlash against Ryan, “a Pavlovian response lingering from a deeply divisive 2012 reelection campaign,” part of a liberal tendency “to identify and decode racial ‘dog whistles’ otherwise undetectable by the public at large.”

Trump’s racism is too overt and widely acknowledged for anyone outside the Trump entourage to deploy this argument in his defense now. But it was just as common for conservatives to play tu quoque against liberals during racial controversies, repurposing the serious language of racial inequality as a partisan brickbat. So familiar was the tactic that you could set a clock by the fixed interval between the moment a Republican found himself mired in a race scandal and the first conservative to tweet a reminder that former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Byrd was a Democrat.

Trump’s counterpoint to Clinton’s basic view that Trump is racist isn’t some exotic “alt-right” concoction either. It’s an argument inflected with Trump’s distinct brashness, but one that has a long pedigree in mainstream conservative thought.

“You live in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs,” he said at a rally in a white enclave near Milwaukee, Wisconsin last week. “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Before Trump was the GOP presidential nominee, the theory—down to this precise vocabulary—that black voters were coddled or captive on a Democratic “plantation” was a foregone conclusion in many, many conservative precincts, including some that now oppose Trump. Three years ago, New York Times columnist Charles Blow did a retrospective on the right’s slavery-themed description of black dependency, after the concept of a Democratic plantation was given gentler voice in Mitt Romney’s comment that 47 percent of Americans would never vote Republican because they are dependents who pay no federal income tax.

Trump’s harsher rendering of this theory presupposes that black people have never had it worse—a view that is somewhat less commonly held, but not altogether absent from conservative analysis. This is outreach not to Black Lives Matter, but Cliven Bundy and Phil Robertson.

Clinton has good strategic reasons for eliding the grey areas where Trumpism and conventional conservative doctrine overlap. Treating conservatives with a measure of grace is central to the goal of isolating Trump and widening the Democratic coalition in the coming election; but it’s also a way of limiting media skepticism that would arise if she drew a broader, but more accurate critique.

Calling Clinton a bigot is Trump’s clumsy way of trying to muddy up the very clear question of which presidential candidate is racist. But he’s only using this tactic because he’s seen conservatives use it before, under dimmer spotlights, to uncontroversial effect.