President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is, among other things, a gift to historians. No major historical figure has provided so thorough a public, real-time account of their daily thoughts and feelings. Future generations of Americans will almost certainly look back on this era with horror and astonishment—and thanks to the president’s stream-of-consciousness social-media habits, they’ll have the raw material to understand how it happened. For instance:
With these tweets on Friday, Trump was almost surely referring to The Hunt, a horror film in which wealthy foreigners hunt “deplorables” for sport. The movie was scheduled for release in late September, but Universal Pictures, which had already paused its marketing campaign after the twin mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, cancelled it amid the political backlash from conservatives. Trump’s tweets on Friday followed similar remarks to the press earlier in the day. “Hollywood is really terrible,” he said. “You talk about racist—Hollywood is racist. What they’re doing, with the kind of movies they’re putting out—it’s actually very dangerous for our country.”
To the extent it pertains to The Hunt, Trump’s accusation of racism was befuddling. The film’s plot is an exaggerated satire of the far-right populist worldview, albeit shorn of the racist overtones that often accompany it: that they’re systematically oppressed by a vast left-wing cultural hegemony. The cast, at least judging by the trailers, is largely white. More to the point, the “deplorables” seem to be the victims, not the villains, in the film. How can a movie in which villainous white elites hunt Trump’s white supporters be racist?
Trump’s racial views are made explicit by his rhetoric and actions toward people of color; no interpretation necessary. But his definition of racism, and how he wields the term in public debate, is worthy of sustained analysis. As with any interrogation of Trump’s random musings, there is no coherent and comprehensive worldview to be unearthed here. But there are two consistent themes to Trump’s use of “racist” over the past decade, and they show how white supremacy shapes his approach to American politics today.
First, when the term is used against white people, Trump typically rises to their defense. This reflex is shaped by Trump’s personal regard for the target. When Hillary Clinton criticized some of his supporters for their bigotry in 2016, he and his base reappropriated her use of “deplorables” as a badge of honor. That sense of racial solidarity is not without exception, especially when he sees a political opportunity or wants to deflect from his own racist history: During that same campaign, he highlighted the Clinton campaign’s use of race as a wedge issue against Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.
His sense of white solidarity can lead him to strange places. In July, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi for what she described as the “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” She unequivocally noted that Pelosi was “absolutely not” a racist, but that didn’t stop Trump from reading between the lines and riding to his political enemy’s defense. “I’ll tell you something about Nancy Pelosi that you know better than I do, she is not a racist,” he told reporters outside the White House. “OK? She is not a racist. For them to call her a racist is a disgrace.”
In Trump’s eyes, “racist” is practically a racial slur for white people. “Can you talk about any problems in urban America without being labeled?” a radio host asked him earlier this month after the furor had begun to subside. “No. I think not just me,” the president replied. “Well, they called Nancy Pelosi a racist two weeks ago too. So you know it’s one of those things. But anytime they run out of ammunition, they start throwing the R-word out there. It’s a terrible thing. I mean, it’s a terrible thing. I’m the least racist person there is. But it’s a terrible thing.”
Second, he typically reserves the term “racist” for people of color. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings has launched a number of investigations into Trump’s administration. This, apparently, is what led Trump to describe Cummings’s majority-black Baltimore district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” When his remarks, grounded in white-nationalist sentiments, were widely criticized, he responded by accusing Cummings and other top Democrats of being racists for their own comments on urban poverty.
Two tweets always come to my mind whenever there’s a debate about Trump and race. The first, published in February 2013 is fairly straightforward: “Django Unchained is the most racist movie I have ever seen, it sucked!” He sent the second one in October 2014: “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled ‘Blackish’? Can you imagine the furor of a show, ‘Whiteish’! Racism at highest level?”
Good-faith interpretations of those two tweets are hard to come by. It’s doubtful that Trump meant to weigh in on the long-running debate over Quentin Tarantino’s treatment of black culture and characters over the past 20 years. Nor is it plausible that he somehow mistakenly thought that ABC meant to insult Blackish’s cast by describing them as anything less than fully African American. The likeliest explanations are the worst ones: He identified with Leonardo DiCaprio and the other slave-owning white villains, not the black freedman hero who burns down a slave plantation in the antebellum South; and he resents references to blackness in pop culture that white Americans could not replicate in a socially acceptable manner.
Trump also recognizes how powerful the term “racist” can be. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that he’s expressed outrage to aides about being called “racist” in recent months. The paper reported that his sensitivity stems from his private-sector background, when he took care to avoid the term when it could imperil his businesses. That would explain his general aversion toward the term against other white people, but not how he wields it against others. Indeed, a casual scroll through the president’s Twitter feed shows that he most often directs the term “racist” at people of color, usually black men: filmmaker Spike Lee, talk-show host Tavis Smiley, journalist Touré, broadcast Bryant Gumbel, former President Barack Obama and so on. In Trump’s eyes, he gets to police the bounds of American racial identity, and no one else.
Trump’s views did not form in a vacuum; those who complain about people “playing the race card” or dismiss concerns about structural racism as “identity politics” drink from the same cup. But this worldview is particularly disturbing given Trump’s power over American politics and discourse. It threatens to legitimize an unmistakable appeal to white ethnic identity. It requires the believer to think that racism is not a major factor in American life, and that acknowledgements of it are almost always spurious. And it leads to the sinister conclusion that white people should continue to enjoy a privileged status in America, and that anyone who challenges that hierarchy is, somehow, a racist.