We have learned Friday that Stephen Bannon, the most prominent nationalist and friend to the alt-right in the White House, is on his way out. The Washington Post reports that President Donald Trump has decided to remove him:
“Trump had been under mounting pressure to dispense with Bannon, who many officials view as a political Svengali but who has drawn scorn as a leading internal force encouraging and amplifying the president’s most controversial nationalist impulses. ...
“Bannon had been expecting to be cut loose from the White House, people close to him said, with one explaining that Bannon was resigned to that fate and is determined to continue to advocate for Trump’s agenda on the outside.”
Coming after the wave of controversy over the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s embrace of the cause of celebrating the confederacy, one might be tempted to view this as some kind of recalibration that could result in a change in the administration’s outlook toward matters of race.
Don’t be fooled.
Republicans will likely seize on Bannon’s ouster to argue that, in his heart, Trump isn’t really a racist. Indeed, in recent days, a number of Republicans have stood up to testify to the president’s inclusive heart. “I know Donald Trump. I don’t think there’s a racist bone in his body,” says Sen. Orrin Hatch. The New York Times tells us that he once dated a model who’s half black. What more proof do you need? (Ask Sally Hemings or Essie Mae Washington-Williams.) Lynne Patton, a longtime Trump family employee, says the president “doesn’t see color the way the average person does.”
Trump himself has said that he is “the least racist person that you have ever met.” I could make a long and detailed case for why Trump is not in fact the least racist person you have ever met.
But this is the wrong question to ask. Not only can’t we know with absolute certainty what lies in Trump’s heart, it could not matter less. He’s the president of the United States – what matters isn’t what he feels but what he does and the kind of example he sets.
And by those much more important measures, Trump is the most racially divisive president in our lifetimes - and it’s not even close. From literally the moment he began his presidential campaign in 2015, he has spread racist ideas, made racist arguments, appealed to racist sentiments, enacted racist policies, and encouraged the most repugnant racists in American society to become more vocal and visible.
Let’s give ourselves a reminder of what President Trump has done just since becoming a candidate, setting aside his history as a private citizen:
In the speech announcing his presidential candidacy, he attacked Mexican immigrants, saying “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. ... They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
He retweeted a racist graphic showing a dark-skinned man wielding a gun and listing bogus statistics alleging falsely that black people are responsible for the vast majority of homicides of white people. That was in addition to the multiple times he retweeted messages from the Twitter accounts of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Though immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, he put an intense focus on individual crimes committed by an undocumented person, telling lurid stories meant to inflame as much hatred as possible. After becoming president, he created the Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement office, whose purpose is to publicize crimes committed by immigrants.
He repeatedly characterized African-Americans as living in a hellish nightmare that could only be saved by him. “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed – what the hell do you have to lose?” he said. That statistic, of course, was bogus.
He said that the judge presiding over his trial for fraud in the Trump University lawsuit (for which he eventually agreed to pay $25 million to compensate his victims) couldn’t be impartial, because “He’s a Mexican.” The judge in fact is an American who was born in Indiana; saying “He’s a Mexican” is no more accurate than saying about Trump, “He’s a German.” But the idea that your heritage forever defines your identity and determines whether you qualify as a “real” American is an old racist notion.
He proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States, and even said he’d be open to creating a registry to track all Muslims in the country.
His “America First” slogan was a deliberate echo of the America First party of the early 1940s, which trafficked in anti-Semitism as it attempted to keep America out of World War II.
For almost the entirety of the campaign he continued to hold to the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, the issue that enabled him to transform himself from a reality TV star into a political figure. In addition, he frequently questioned whether Obama could have fairly been admitted to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, demanding to see Obama’s grades to prove that he was actually qualified.
His Justice Department is reportedly planning to seek out cases where it can sue universities for discriminating against white people.
Soon after taking office, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, made clear that the Justice Department would no longer concern itself with investigating police abuse of minority citizens, and has taken steps to pull back from the consent decrees the Obama administration negotiated with local police departments to improve their conduct.
He made the ludicrous claim that he only lost the popular vote because 3 to 5 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally, then set up a commission to “investigate” the matter, the results of which will be used to further the Republican effort to make it as hard as possible for African-Americans and other minorities to register and vote.
Thursday, he made another reference to a bogus story he told repeatedly on the campaign trail, in which Gen. Pershing supposedly responded to terrorism by taking 50 Muslim prisoners and summarily executing 49 of them with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, on the theory that this would be particularly offensive to Muslims. So in addition to proclaiming his support for a fictional war crime, Trump is arguing that offending Muslim religious sensibilities is the way to fight terrorism (this from a man who says it’s a deep insult to Christians when a department store puts up a “Happy Holidays” sign).
And of course, not only has he now embraced the cause of monuments celebrating the Confederacy – a rebellion against the United States for the purpose of maintaining slavery – he has explicitly equated its leaders to the founders of the American Republic, putting figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the same plane as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Given this extraordinary record, no sane person believes that it’s some kind of accident that all manner of neo-Nazis and white supremacists have felt emboldened by Trump’s campaign, his election victory, and his presidency to become more vocal and demonstrative than they ever have before.
Indeed, if you ask them that’s exactly what they’ll tell you. They regularly praise and celebrate President Trump, and say that his words and actions show that they no longer need to hide their ideology of hate. As David Duke said in Charlottesville last weekend, “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
So Steve Bannon may be gone, but we shouldn’t let that fool us into thinking that the Trump administration has undergone some kind of transformation. We’ll know that something has truly changed if the Justice Department displays a genuine commitment to upholding civil rights, or if the administration dials back on its vote suppression efforts, or if the president himself stops making statements that bring so much joy to the most detestable hatemongers in American society.
That’s how we’ll know that Donald Trump is no racist in the ways that matter. I don’t know about you, but I’m not expecting much.