Trump and the white power problem

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
Donald Trump. (Artwork by Livio Mancini for Yahoo News based on a photo by John Locher/AP)
View photos
Donald Trump (Artwork by Livio Mancini for Yahoo News based on a photo by John Locher/AP)

I’ve written a lot of pretty rough things about Donald Trump over the last 18 months. I’ve called him an entertainer and an emotional extremist, a guy with a black hole at his center. I’ve likened him to P.T. Barnum and a dime-store psychic.

Not once, though, have I suggested that Trump is, personally, a racist or an anti-Semite, which are labels people throw around too often these days. He’s always struck me as an opportunist more than anything else — an act in search of an audience, which he just happened to find in some of the darkest corners of the American psyche.

I figured that if a loud chunk of conservative voters had been anxiously agitating for someone to champion, say, antipoverty programs instead of a wall, Trump would have jumped on that horse just as quickly. Whatever his flaws, I didn’t take him for a devoted bigot.

It’s only now, after another staggering week in our fast unraveling society, that I find myself asking a question I really never imagined asking.

Does the president-elect of the United States feel some genuine kinship with the white nationalists he’s managed to embolden? Or does he just think it’s not a big deal if a bunch of crazy guys go around saluting him like Nazis?

To be clear, I’ve never managed to get very excited about the white power folks who pop up in the news sporadically, marching in parades or holding little conferences in some backwoods Best Western. They’ve always seemed more sad than menacing to me, like the clowns at some crumbling, last-ditch carnival.

But if you haven’t yet watched this video of white nationalists “heiling” Trump in Washington last weekend, you should, because it’s really something.

Here’s a recognized leader of the so-called alt-right movement from which Trump has drawn support and counsel, a guy who wouldn’t look at all out of place as a swastika-clad extra in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” doing a little Hitler impression in Trump’s honor and railing against the media in the original German. (“One wonders if these people are people at all,” he says, which sounds to me like an invitation to violence.)

View photos

And this isn’t in some drab Southern banquet room, but rather in the Ronald Reagan Federal Building, a few blocks from the White House. (You’d think these people would at least have had the decency to walk across the plaza to the building named for Woodrow Wilson, who would have agreed with them when it came to mixing races.)

To keep this in perspective, which is important, we’re talking here about maybe 200 white guys in a country of 300 million-plus; it’s not like they’re goose-stepping through the streets by the hundreds of thousands. It’s also not like Trump endorsed the rally or sent a video expressing his gratitude.

But it’s not as if Trump has nothing to do with the brazenness of it, either. Even Republicans have to acknowledge that in his rhetoric and rallies throughout the campaign, Trump relegitimized a kind of racism and xenophobia that had been finally relegated to the margins of public life. He behaved like a human Ouija board, unleashing spirits better consigned to the netherworld.

This is distinct from your run-of-the-mill resentment in white, working-class enclaves, your basic backlash to political correctness gone badly awry, for which I actually have some sympathy. This is taunting Jewish journalists about going to the ovens. This is swastikas popping up again in our cities and suburbs.

This is ordinary citizens walking down the street and being told to go back to their own countries because they aren’t white. This is grown men who run around bullying every guy who doesn’t accept the superiority of white males by calling him a “cuck,” whatever that means.

This is new, or at least resurgent, and it is profoundly frightening to an awful lot of Americans at the moment.

So what is Trump’s response, now that he’s taken on the task of making America great again?

Well, he certainly had no problem summoning outrage this week. On Twitter, he railed against the impertinent cast of “Hamilton,” which he called an overrated show, and against “Saturday Night Live,” which he thought one-sided and not funny. He found time to bitterly complain to the president of NBC News about a photo that made him appear to have a double chin. (Reality is rough, even for a reality TV star.)

But when it came to leading white supremacists raising stiff arms to him as if he were Hitler reincarnate, Trump at first said nothing, and then, under pressure, allowed his spokeswoman to release a terse statement tepidly disavowing their support.

Pushed repeatedly about this at a meeting with reporters and editors from the New York Times, Trump said, “Boy, you are really into this stuff,” as if surprised it should keep coming up. “It’s not a group I want to energize,” he said at one point, “and if they are energized I want to look into it and find out why.”

This, of course, was after he named Steve Bannon, an intellectual hero of the alt-right movement, as his top White House strategist — a pick he much more vehemently defended in the same interview. It was after he chose Jeff Sessions, who was kept off the federal bench because of his ignominious record on race, as the nation’s attorney general, and Michael Flynn, a general who regards all Islam as the enemy, as his national security adviser.

To be clear, Trump isn’t the only Republican who’s oddly reticent when it comes to white nationalists. Where’s Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell? How about loyalists like Rudy Giuliani, who ran the nation’s most Jewish city, or Chris Christie, who would never let this kind of thing go unanswered in New Jersey?

View photos

Where’s Jared Kushner, the omnipresent son-in-law, whom Trump apparently trusts with negotiating Middle East peace, and who is, incidentally, an orthodox Jew? Does he not think this might be a moment to exert some influence?

What about all those “Never Trump” leaders who were supposedly standing for a more enlightened Republican Party? I guess Mitt Romney can’t afford to get sidetracked denouncing racism, now that he’s trying to take back all the things he said about Trump and get himself appointed secretary of state.

(By the way, Mitt, when that phone finally rings, you’d better be prepared to hear laughter on the other end. This whole business of making you grovel is what they call payback in the big city.)

But Trump’s is the voice that matters most. He’s the one who ignited new hope for a racist, authoritarian renaissance — and if those hopes aren’t shared by some vast legion of white Americans, neither are they confined to a few hundred. He has some responsibility to curb that enthusiasm before windows and bones start getting smashed.

My guess is that Trump thinks these people are a little nutty, in the way that fervid supporters often are, but not really worth alienating just to please a bunch of people like me. I’m betting he believes that white men, generally speaking, have been abused by the cultural elite and overlooked by policymakers — but that’s a different thing from espousing white supremacy.

And yet if Trump really is more of an opportunist than an ideologue, then he ought to see the opportunity here, too. Some large segment of Americans voted to give him an audition in office, despite grave reservations about his temperament. The latest Pew Research poll found that a large majority of voters — including a sizable segment of those who voted for him — were disgusted by his campaign.

Trump’s success will depend a lot on how well he channels that emotion. He could do himself a lot of good right now by going after neo-Nazis and the like with at least the same fervor he reserves for Broadway actors and photo editors.

If Trump won’t assail hatred on moral grounds, then surely he can bring himself to capitalize on it.