I remember reading Bob Dylan once saying that he didn’t really write his songs. They were out there, floating in the air; he just happened to be the one who grabbed them. It’s a lovely and kind of poetic thought—that “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” and all the others were just objects, at once mystical and animate, suspended in the atmosphere, hovering just out of our reach, and only the Bard of Hibbing occupied the magical wavelength to reach them and pull them to the ground.
Donald Trump is Dylan’s dark, toxic antipode. If there’s a poisonous idea out there in the air, a lethal and pestilential trope at risk of being underutilized, we can be sure that Trump will grab it and inject it into the discourse. He never misses an opportunity to debase civilization.
I was watching a clip of his Saturday night rally. Specifically, his extended monologue about all the prosecutions he’s currently facing. He referred to the prosecutors as “radical, vicious, racist.” Radical and vicious didn’t faze me. That’s the kind of rhetorical offal that oozes out of the man’s mouth every time he opens it.
But “racist”? Where did that come from? Why racist?
But after sitting with it for a moment, I began to grasp the logical connections. Of course! Who’s investigating him?
Let’s have a look: New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, and finally, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine. Hmmm. Let’s see. Notice anything these four people have in common?
Yes, they’re Black. And because of that, it’s now a racist conspiracy against Trump. Never mind that it was the white Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance who originated that office’s pursuit of Trump. Or that any Democratic New York attorney general or Fulton County district attorney would be exploring the same types of cases against Trump that James and Willis are. Or that the chief judge of the Fulton County Superior Court that recently approved Willis’s request for a grand jury is white, or that white Republican Brad Raffensperger, the state’s attorney general, said he would testify before that grand jury.
Never mind all of that. Donald Trump has to make it a race war.
This is not a strategy. This is who he is. It’s how he thinks. If the person in question is a Black Democrat, then that person by definition and temperament and biological destiny must be out to destroy him. Trump has broken the law into a million pieces for 40 years. He should have been prosecuted in New York state about seven attorneys general ago. Now that one finally is, and she happens to be a Black Democrat, to Trump that can only mean she’s on a vicious and explicitly racial vendetta.
Remember the incident with the “Mexican” judge in 2016? A suit against Trump over Trump University, another scam that should have been prosecuted years before, was assigned to federal judge Gonzalo Curiel. Trump repeatedly and poisonously charged that Curiel couldn’t possibly hear the case fairly because he was “Mexican” (his parents were Mexican, but he was born in Indiana) and thus obviously biased against Trump because of rhetoric about building a border wall.
It was absurd, offensive, and racist from top to bottom, as many Republicans conceded. But recall the most interesting part of it: Trump never bothered denying it. Yes, I remember him saying in one interview—Of course I’m saying he’s biased because he’s Mexican! What other reason would there be? In Trump’s essentialist worldview, people aren’t people, or at least nonwhite people aren’t people; they’re just manifestations of Trump’s own racist presumptions about their ethnic traits. Unless of course they’re Trump sycophants. Then they’re all right.
By tossing that word “racist” into the mix, Trump throws more gasoline on a bonfire he’s done more to inflame than any figure in the recent history of this country. He hasn’t thought this through because he doesn’t think anything through. But in his gut he knows: He needs to stoke race rage. It infuriates liberals and makes his followers adore him all the more.
And this isn’t the first time he’s done it this year. At a January rally in Arizona, he lied that “the left is now rationing life-saving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating, just denigrating white people to determine who lives and who dies. You get it based on race. In fact, in New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help. If you’re white, you go right to the back of the line.” Of course none of this is true.
The fight of the twentieth century in this country has been a battle between two visions of America: that of a diverse, multiracial democracy and that of a white-ethnonationalist Christian nation that’s happy to be a democracy as long as things are going its way. This battle predates Trump. Karl Rove knew it. He had some boundaries, some lines even he wouldn’t cross. It goes back to Newt Gingrich, who is really the hellspawn who started this all. But even Gingrich had some boundaries.
But with Trump there are no limits. The psychic jungle that is his mental life is constantly in search of new lines to cross. This will never end, as long as he is in public life. He ain’t never done nuthin’ but build to destroy. I just plucked that out of the air.