Donald Trump doesn’t need to actually call me “nigger.”
The Central Park Five didn’t need to read it in that ad he published in 1989 calling for their deaths, nor did the tenants in his housing developments who sued him for discrimination in the ’70s. The Mexicans whom Trump branded as “rapists” surely got the gist, as did the Muslims whom he banned from traveling here. It went unsaid when he shared willfully ignorant memes about black crime and complimented the neo-Nazis who terrorized Charlottesville. We hear him loud and clear. It doesn’t matter so much whether you are called a “nigger” when you are being treated like one.
Case in point, last Thursday. “Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries here?” Trump reportedly asked a group of lawmakers meeting with him in the Oval Office about immigration. He’d just finished denigrating Haiti and African nations. To drive home the racism of it all, he added, “We should have more people from places like Norway.” The following day, Trump denied making the comments — but Sen. Dick Durbin, a Illinois Democrat who was in the meeting, said the reports got it right. “He said these hate-filled things and he said them repeatedly,” Durbin said.
A year into Trump’s presidency, we still handle these incidents horribly. Political junkies get hemmed up about which Republican issued the inevitably soft rebuke. Earnest defenders try to prove that these poor, black countries are really great places, as if that should matter. Engage on that level if you wish, but other than perhaps “Who hurt you, Mr. President?” it is past time to ask more urgent questions.
Can a person perform these kinds of racist acts and still function as president of the United States in today’s day and age? How much does trying to bring about a white ethno-state get in the way of doing the actual job? Can you be the birther-in-chief and still be effective as the commander-in-chief? No.
Governing as an open racist certainly isn’t as easy for Trump as it may have been for his hero, Andrew Jackson. Two things stand in his way: the pragmatic functions of the job, and the reality of the country he governs.
These are questions about effectiveness, not sentiment. It’s important that we have a president who functions well, no matter the party, and being a leader who acts like Trump does has proven consequences. He gets in his own way: Courts have blocked his orders, including his efforts to cancel DACA and enact his beloved Muslim ban, thanks to his biased statements. Eleven inmates at Guantanamo are making a similar argument now, since Trump has said he never wants anyone to be released. But even in a systemically racist nation, does racist behavior make the job harder?
Pairing this new barb with the president’s earlier remark about Nigerian visa recipients never wanting to “go back to their huts,” Trump has casually tossed aside any hope of meaningful dialogue and cooperation with industrialized and developing African countries alike — likely ceding that diplomatic space to China and other nations who take Africa seriously. He’s slandered Haitians again needlessly, after previously describing them as “all having AIDS.” If we’ve learned anything about his modus operandi, he will randomly target still other countries with his ire. Moreover, his racist barbs shed a new light on his government’s negligence in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s how he treats black and brown folks who are American citizens. You can see why he wouldn’t think twice about slurring those he considers foreign invaders.
Being a functional modern American president requires effectively managing the nation’s relations with other countries; it also requires a deep investment in the wellbeing of one’s own citizens. On that note, consider what James Baldwin said in a WGBH interview in the spring of 1963. Answering a question about whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America, the prophetic author said “the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.” The two fortunes are insoluble, he said. This is the standard by which I judge President Trump and his forebears, above all others. People of color in this country, no matter their national origin, are as much a part of America as he is. Any objective analysis would conclude that improving life for us black folks is commensurate with and key to an improving economy. Is this president governing to truly try to lift all boats in the rising tide?
I never expected him to ever try to meet that standard, let alone try. Even worse, Trump’s staff remains actively complicit. Why else would they tell CNN’s Kaitlan Collins that they predict the president’s “shithole” slur would resonate well with the same base that loved it when he cursed out kneeling NFL players protesting racial injustice?
That rubbish may please his adoring audience, but it is anathema to what the presidency has represented and how it has functioned. If Baldwin is right, if America goes as well as black people go, then how do moments like “shithole” help him govern? The DACA mess is a good example — a bipartisan deal is necessary to keep the government running, and few congressional representatives want to be seen negotiating with known racists. And even on other issues that seem less partisan ― take infrastructure, for example ― Democrats and many Republicans are trying to avoid Trump. Even if the president himself believes that overt racism plays well politically, the work Americans need to get done doesn’t get done.
Trump’s casual racism may have brought him more than electoral success 100 or even 50 years ago, but the country he and his voters want to make “great” again has undergone some irreversible changes since then. Trump is using Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as a goon squad in his effort to cosmetically whiten the country. Eliminating Temporary Protective Status for Salvadorans, Haitians, and other brown and black people he considers expendable, the very policy change that prompted his “shithole” remark, is another tool.
The recent comment may be the clearest example of Trump manifesting his personal biases in policy. But even if he destroys thousands of families and kills businesses in the process, he can’t kill or deport them all, as he promised. Not to give a racist advice, but going the white nationalist route with a dwindling base is an eventual loser. That he looks at the America of today and thinks that outright white nationalism could do more than win him an election — with the help of vote suppressors here and abroad — is curious, to say the least. It’s a testimony to how little Trump understands about the job he has and the country he runs.
If Trump cared one half a damn about being an effective leader for anyone who isn’t rich, white and male, he’d listen. But since white Americans are the only ones who seem to have his ear, I’ll share one other important thing Baldwin offered in that same 1963 interview in the hopes that change can come from below. The author laid out, in his way, the path for white Americans to understand their common journey with Americans of color. “What white people have to do,” Baldwin said, “is to try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place.” He added, “If I’m not a nigger” — just to be clear, he was not, nor am I — “and you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on … whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
Donald Trump so badly needs a “nigger.” The people need a real president. We are both out of luck.
Jamil Smith is a journalist and radio host. He covered the 2016 election for MTV News and, in addition to his HuffPost column, is a contributing opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times.