Joe Biden Correctly Labels Donald Trump First Racist President Named Donald Trump
There was some confusion online Wednesday when Joe Biden declared Donald Trump the first racist president. Biden made his charge during a virtual town hall organized by the Service Employees International Union. The former vice president shared a questioner's concern about how Trump scapegoats the Chinese for the COVID-19 outbreak that his administration bungled.
BIDEN: ... the way he deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they're from, is absolutely sickening.
No sitting president has ever done this. Never, never, never. No Republican president has done this. No Democratic president. We've had racists, and they've existed, they've tried to get elected president. He's the first one that has.
It's a safe bet to say that absolutely nothing about Donald Trump is unique or special. He's a lot of awful things occurring simultaneously in the White House, but he's not the first racist to sit in the Oval Office. Twelve previous presidents held people in bondage, and that's almost creepy serial killer behavior if you think about it: People are dressed in rags, sometimes chained up, and kept in dank rooms that visitors don't see. Sure, slavery is now illegal but Trump is a sociopath who doesn't think the law applies to him. We can also be sure that Ivanka Trump has asked for at least one Oompa Loompa. No, we have to grudgingly rank Trump below George Washington in our racist president ranking, because Trump doesn't own people nor does he use their teeth as dentures (another serial killer trait).
Biden says Trump is America's first racist president: "We’ve had racists, and they’ve existed, they’ve tried to get… https://t.co/76Pnwf9bQP— The Recount (@The Recount)1595450736.0
I get where Biden's coming from, though. He's comparing Trump to someone like George Wallace or Strom Thurmond, both of whom were overtly racist but neither made it to the White House. Trump's populist rhetoric recalls Wallace, whom Martin Luther King considered the "most dangerous racist in America today." Thurmond filibustered against civil rights laws. These were bad guys.
It's convenient to discuss Trump only in a relatively modern context. As the backlash to The 1619 Project has demonstrated, (white) Americans don't like to think about the Great Men of History as major oppressors. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, wrote that “all men are created equal" but enslaved 600 human beings. No, (white) Americans prefer their history like a romantic period drama where no one goes to the bathroom.
Ta-Nehisi Coates described Trump as the first white president, and I'd mostly agree. Trump is a reaction to the first Black president and a defensive block against what would've been the first woman president. Trump speaks to white male racial resentment, borne from 1990s talk radio and eventually Fox News. He is that network's average viewer. This was why his “forgotten man" rhetoric resonated with so many white people, especially the working-class men who saw women and minority men advance ahead of them professionally.
That resentment was only in the background with Saint Ronald Reagan, deeply coded and buried beneath “Morning in America" optimism. It was practically non-existent in the days of Washington and Jefferson. The racial hierarchy was fixed. White men had little to fear from Black people. They didn't need to elect true “a son of bitch" to contain them.
There were still presidents prior to Trump who were just as openly antagonistic to minorities. Andrew Jackson, a particularly brutal enslaver, promoted Native American ethnic cleansing. Andrew Johnson was a boorish racist who replaced a distinguished president from Illinois. Woodrow Wilson held a screening of Birth of a Nation at the White House, which Trump might've also done if it were available to stream.
However, as Coates observed, all Trump ultimately had to offer was racism in 2016 and it remains his guiding governing principle, from his anti-(brown) immigration stance and his obviously racist views of Black people — although Trump still contends he's done more for Black people than anyone — and I quote — “the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln." Trump even laps Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and John Lewis!
The worst of Trump's views, however, aren't drastically different from those that Tucker Carlson or Ben Shapiro regularly offer. Trump is just crasser, less “sophisticated." His vulgarity is what makes it easy for white people across the political spectrum to label him racist. It's more comfortable if American racism wears a MAGA hat.
Stephen Robinson on Twitter.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).