Donald Trump isn’t particularly nice to anyone. His standard demeanor and language in disagreement or debate resemble the union of a road-rage incident and a bad game of the dozens. Even in agreement, he’s not a person for whom respect—of others or of the office he holds—is necessarily a guiding light. He does not run out of venom for opponents, and rarely has a word of unqualified praise for people who haven’t praised him first.
But if one pattern in his remarks about other people has crystallized in the past few months, it’s that the president employs a particular species of dismissive language when he’s talking about black women. After spending a good chunk of his first year in office attacking black men, his sophomore year has involved high-profile verbal attacks against high-profile black women. And, as evidenced by his recent remarks on the death of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, his need to subordinate black women, even without enmity, is a primary drive.
“I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well,” Trump said Thursday during a Cabinet meeting. “She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific—Aretha Franklin—on her passing. She brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come.”
It’s hard not to find effusive praise for a woman who managed so much in three-quarters of a century, and Trump’s comments indicate he has some sense of the scope of what she did. But with four simple words—she worked for me—he ruined most of that. With that clause, he turned the stunning career achievements of a woman who was nominated for at least one Grammy Award in 24 of the 27 years from 1968 to 1995 into supporting evidence. The most important thing, the thing he just had to point out, was that she’d worked for him.
To be sure, it’s as yet unclear how well the president actually knew Franklin, and in what capacity, if any, she ever worked directly for him. But assuming that she had—perhaps as a musician at the opening of a hotel or casino sometime in the past—it’s still telling that Trump’s first impulse was to claim a black woman as labor for his cause. It seems almost an instinct for the president to emphasize or exaggerate personal relationships with prominent individuals, as he did when the hip-hop artist Kanye West made a visit to Trump Tower. But here his first instinct is to turn one of the greatest icons in American musical history into the help. It’s the only way he seems to be able to recognize and process black women who aren’t adversaries: by fealty.
As Trump has also demonstrated recently, black women elicit the most bellicose and vulgar insults from him when they cross the line from associate to adversary. On Tuesday, he took to Twitter to call his former staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman a “dog,” after she claimed, on a press tour for her new book, that he’d been caught on tape using a six-letter word referring to black people that’s not people. He’s similarly engaged in a long-running series of racist and sexist attacks against Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, repeatedly denigrating her as a “low IQ” individual. Trump has also insulted Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, Oprah Winfrey, the ESPN journalist Jemele Hill, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice.
As with many of the black men Trump continually berates—from the NBA superstar LeBron James to the NBA superdad LaVar Ball—many of his most charged attacks denigrate black intelligence. But with black women, there’s the additional dimension of subordination and vicious critiques of appearance that he also tends to levy against women generally.
Perhaps those attacks against black women are so vicious because Trump can evidently find no greater achievement than working for him, in service of his goals. In this, black women are to be the help, loved and praised until they decide to do something else. But the truth is most likely that Trump was little more than a footnote in Franklin’s life. Her arc was greater and grander than whole strings of presidents, let alone just this one.