In some ways, President Donald Trump refuses to follow any of the established rules, like avoiding open racism. In others, he is perfectly derivative—for example, when called on his racist remarks, the president reverted to one of the most tired cliches in the book:
Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body! The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show “weakness” and fall into their trap. This should be a vote on the filthy language, statements and lies told by the Democrat.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 16, 2019
As Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer wrote in an April Washington Post essay on the history of “racist bones,” the phrase gained currency during the Reagan administration. When confronted about the racial impacts of its policies, the White House would simply insist it didn’t see color; the policies were intended to affect everyone the same. It took to citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortation to judge people on their character rather than skin color: “This embrace of colorblindness—a selective and distorted reading of what King actually advocated—enabled Reagan to frame his relentless attacks on civil rights as motivated by a morally righteous and apolitical commitment to equality.”
Donald Trump has attempted to assume that same mantle, both in claiming a nonbigoted skeleton and through surrogates’ statements.
“My father values talent,” Ivanka Trump said at the 2016 Republican National Convention. “He recognizes real knowledge and skill when he finds it. He is color-blind and gender-neutral.” When the president said he wanted more immigrants from Norway, then–Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that “by definition, a merit-based system is color-blind.”
Today, the Trump-campaign official Katrina Pierson told a crowd, “Donald Trump doesn’t see color. He doesn’t see race. He doesn’t see gender.” She was speaking at an event for a group called “Women for Trump.”
The claim of color-blindness is politically useful, because it provides deniability to a range of policies that have obvious racial effects. When the administration tries to break the law to place a citizenship question on the census, that’s not about trying to intimidate Latinos—it’s just politics. When the president later admits that the point of the question was not, as the government claimed, enforcing the Voting Rights Act, but instead trying to redistrict on the basis of citizenship—well, that’s just politics, too, because who wouldn’t want to game the system to support his own political party (which turns out to be an almost exclusively white party)? And when Trump says Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” that’s not about race. It’s just about patriotism.
The problem is that Trump and his administration are not especially good at making this deniability plausible. This is the difference between Ronald Reagan and Trump. In 1980, Reagan would happily go to Neshoba County, Mississippi, near where three civil-rights workers had been murdered 14 years earlier, and talk about states’ rights—another “color-blind” Trojan horse for race—but Reagan and his defenders were at least willing to feign outrage at the suggestion that race was a factor.
Trump, on the other hand, has a long and undeniable record of singling people out by race. He cannot keep the ruse up, and often the mask slips. It slipped on the campaign trail in 2016, when Trump spotted a man in the crowd and excitedly said, “Look at my African American over here!” It slipped when Trump was unwilling to straightforwardly condemn a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
It also slipped today, when Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway tried to argue that it was standard to ask people about their background by asking a reporter where he was from. But Conway made two mistakes. First, she claimed falsely that Trump had “said ‘originally.’ He said ‘originally from.’” (In fact, he referred to the “countries” that they “originally came from.”) Second, and more importantly, she asked the question of a Jewish reporter—immediately raising the specter of anti-Semitism.
Had she asked the question of a WASP or an Irish American reporter, Conway’s remark wouldn’t have drawn the same attention, but her premise would have been equally unconvincing. No one tells tenth-generation WASPs or fourth-generation Irish Americans or first-generation Slovenian Americans to go back to Kent or Cork or Sevnica. No one asks them whether they’re American citizens, either. Treating whiteness as a yardstick for normalcy isn’t the same as being blind to color.