One of the ways in which Donald Trump differs from recent Republican presidents is in his open express of racist sentiments. At the end of July the National Archives released a recording of a telephone conversation between then governor Ronald Reagan and President Nixon in which Reagan said, “To see those monkeys from those African countries, damn them. They are still uncomfortable wearing shoes.” Nixon is heard laughing. Reagan never made such statements in public, although he often referred to black men as “bucks,” the first half of a common compound insult, “buck niggers.” Americans of Reagan’s era would hear the second word even though Reagan never said it. The first president Bush won the 1988 election with TV advertisements depicting black men using a revolving door to leave prison. Nixon’s frequent references to “law and order” and “urban crime” fanned fears of black criminals.
Trump leaves subtleties aside and says in public what other presidents only gave voice to with trusted friends and discreet political allies. In just the last few weeks he has said that four non-white members of Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, should “go back” to the countries they came from, even though three of the four were born in the US, and the other is a US citizen. He also tweeted that the Baltimore district represented by African American Representative Elijah Cummings is “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Two years ago he made similar remarks about the Atlanta district, actually one of the wealthiest in the nation, represented by the civil rights hero John Lewis. A majority of the residents in both districts are non-white. Trump repeatedly describes districts and cities that are majority black as dirty, disgusting, hopeless and crime-ridden. He never mentions the high crime rates and astronomically high drug abuse rates in white districts that voted for him.
Trump’s equation of blacks with crime and dirt is nothing new. His first intervention in politics came in 1989 when five young black men were accused of raping and brutally beating a white woman. Trump took out full page ads in all the New York City daily newspapers, including The New York Times. He wrote, "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE…I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them." In fact, the accused were not murderers, and a decade later another man confessed to the crime and the five were released. Even after their acquittals, Trump repeatedly stated that he still believed they were guilty.
Most famously, Trump advanced the false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the US and therefore was not eligible to serve as president. Even after Obama released his birth certificate from Hawaii, Trump continued to repeat the lie. Only in the days before the 2016 election did he finally admit that Obama was born in the US.
Trump’s father was a racist. Fred Trump was arrested in 1927 at a Ku Klux Klan rally. The KKK was a violent racist organization that in the century following the Civil War lynched blacks, as well as Catholics and Jews. Fred Trump became extremely rich building apartments that he rented to middle income New Yorkers. He refused to rent to blacks. In 1973 the Federal government sued the Trump Management Corporation for violating the Fair Housing Act. Federal officials documented that Fred and his son Donald had refused to rent to black tenants and lied to black applicants about whether apartments were available. Donald said the federal government was trying to get him to rent to welfare recipients. In the aftermath, he signed an agreement in 1975 agreeing not to discriminate to renters of color without admitting to previous discriminating. However the discrimination continued.
There is ample evidence that Trump, like his father, is a racist. However, what matters most is his willingness to appeal openly to racist Americans. Reagan too, it now is clear, was a racist, while George H. W. Bush and his son were not. However, the elder Bush used race in his presidential campaign of 1988 as much as Reagan did in 1980, and 1976 and 1968.
When the highest official in the nation evokes racist tropes, it ratifies ordinary Americans’ racist beliefs. It is not that racism disappeared under Democrats or during George W. Bush’s presidency. But when presidents never utter racist words, and when they include African Americans in the highest offices of their administrations, then racism is seen as illegitimate and something that must be kept private, not expressed in front of others. Over time, the absence of public racism reduces private racism. Children who don’t hear racist words and tropes can grow up believing that race is not a salient characteristic.
Actors certainly are more convincing when they believe what they are saying, and Trump’s racism comes across as more sincere than did Nixon’s or Reagan’s and certainly more than Bush senior’s. Trump doesn’t have to act. He just calls upon his father and his own long history of racist expressions and actions. In so doing, he is reviving and intensifying America’s long history of racism.