Trump and the N Word

It’s not the word that matters—it’s the sentiment.

Evan Vucci / AP

Omarosa Manigault-Newman has provided recordings on which nervous aides discuss how to cover for something hideous they believe Donald Trump has uttered.

And we hardly need question whether the N word is the one at issue. What would that hideous utterance have been if not the word currently treated as the most taboo in the English language? In an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob and Laura Petrie are chilled that their son Richie had used a “bad word,” which the script must leave unspoken given the public standards of the era. It is clear, however, that the word was fuck. In 2018, the word those aides are so worried about is just as clearly nigger.

But the question is whether this is truly big news.

I have always assumed, casually, that Trump has used the word. To suppose that he didn’t would be to imagine that a real-life Archie Bunker didn’t—Trump is, after all, of the same white, salt-of-the-earth Queens stock as that character, with the same sense of what real America is. I recall a man who worked with me on a summer job at a seafood market in the ’80s. On Fridays, the store would feature whiting, a fish especially popular with black people. One of the employees had misspelled whiting on the sign, and this Trumpesque fellow chuckled, unaware that I was within earshot, “Doesn’t matter—niggers can’t read anyway.”

Things like that let you know what sorts of things are said when you aren’t around; this man was perfectly ordinary, as is, quite resonantly, Trump. What would be surprising is if he, a sociologically unheedful person molded in the 1950s, wasn’t well acquainted with the N word. This is a man, after all, who once jocularly said that “laziness is a trait in blacks,” according to one of his former executives.

That Trump is a casual racist has long been painfully clear. While his scorn for all comers is plain from his speeches and tweets, he has repeatedly demonstrated an especial contempt for black people. His sustained animus against the Central Park Five, as opposed to any number of other malfeasants in his native city (and never mind that the Central Park Five have been exonerated); his Ahab-like obsession with outing President Barack Obama as an alien; his distancing use of the when discussing “the African Americans” as if we were some kind of exhibit; his lack of genuine recoil at the poisonous open bigotry of the alt-right (continued recently in his dutifully appending “violence” to that which he condemns alongside racism, as a way of once again dissing the counterprotesters in Charlottesville as culpable)—all of it makes the man’s mind on the matter plain.

No, he wouldn’t burn crosses on anyone’s lawn. Trump is a man of the late-20th century, not its earlier half. But Trump clearly thinks of black people as an inferior caste. Not for nothing does he so favor charging black people with being, in particular, unintelligent, with the list including not only Manigault-Newman but LeBron James, Maxine Waters, and the CNN anchor Don Lemon. Trump here reveals what an implicit-association test likely would: The reason “dummy” occurs so spontaneously to him as a catcall to black people is because he is, again, an ordinary man with ordinary racist views. Like so many others, he thinks black people are not only lazy, but stupid.

With the case for Trump’s bigotry so clear, in what sense would it somehow be a key revelation that he has used the N word? In what sense is his using that slur proof of anything but what we’ve known all along? Given what his views clearly are, wouldn’t it be a little odd if he primly refrained from using that word in his private moments? That would be an incoherent person, and Trump is, if anything, quite coherent—gruesomely predictable in his solipsistic, unrefined Alpha-baboon essence.

I worry that some will see the recordings as an “Aha!” moment, as if now we know something that was hitherto tough to quite smoke out. But this attributes too much significance to the word, as opposed to the sentiment. What should appall us most is that the leader of the United States has the views about black people that most of the Mad Men characters did—we are faintly inept, lesser, dimwits, who whites are best advised to alternately accommodate and work around.

We should not, beyond this, find it more transcendently appalling if he used the slur that corresponds to these views. Black self-esteem is germane here, but not in the way that many may suppose. Claiming that the word, by itself, injures me in a degree beyond Trump’s thoughts may seem to have a certain citizenly purpose, as a kind of teaching moment. But to claim that this man can penetrate my soul and self-esteem by doing something as effortless as uttering a single word also entails portraying myself as easily vulnerable to him. I don’t want to be vulnerable to him; I’m not, and I would hope other black Americans would join me in that.

“There—he said it!” No. He said it long ago, many times. That was bad enough. Worse, even.