Who could have predicted that an unhinged attack on professional athletes would be Donald Trump's final unmasking as a full-on racist? After everything that he has done and said -- not merely since he announced his candidacy in 2015 but throughout his life -- Trump finally found a way to remove the last shreds of doubt about his bigotry.
This is a good occasion to revisit a point that I made during last year's election campaign, which is that Trump's supposed devotion to America and our values becomes inoperative when he has a chance to be a white supremacist. When he has a choice, Trump goes with the racist approach, not the American one.
For those who might have been on vacation (or living under a rock) for the past week, a quick summary of Trump's latest outburst might be helpful.
In a bizarre sequence of events, Trump spent last weekend trying to get back in the good graces of his white supremacist base. The people who were infuriated by Trump's willingness to work with non-bigots to allow "dreamers" to stay in the country were hopping mad, and Trump needed to exploit a quick-and-easy cultural grievance that combined just the right blend of sophistry and racism.
Looking for nonwhites to vilify, Trump decided to attack African-American sports stars, in particular Colin Kaepernick, an involuntarily unemployed football player who last year began silently protesting America's systemic racism by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at the beginning of NFL games.
The target was not just Kaepernick and other football players, however, as Trump quickly attacked large numbers of black basketball and baseball players, scolding them for supposedly disrespecting America even though our country had allowed them to become rich. He might as well have complained that they were being "uppity."
For those who might have missed the point, Trump also made sure to say that these young black men were attacking our "heritage," which is the code word that Trump and other white supremacists use to defend things like Confederate statues and other relics of the Jim Crow era.
And if that was not enough, Trump lauded NASCAR for being pro-American, and he then tried to pull hockey into the mix by inviting the NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins (whose roster actually happens to be Canadian- and Russian-heavy, but no matter) to the White House. Even in accepting the invitation, the Penguins tried to make it clear that they are uncomfortable being associated with Trump.
So, we now know that football, basketball, and baseball are un-American, whereas auto racing and hockey are patriotic. No subtlety there. Why not just go for every other stereotype, waxing poetic about mayonnaise on white bread, segregated lunch counters, and Pat Boone records?
The final proof that this is all about race, of course, was when Trump tweeted that it is not about race. Even Trump realized that he had to pretend it was about "respect for America," or his twisted version of it. As NeverTrump conservative Peter Wehner quickly responded: "Of course it’s about race."
Kaepernick is a particularly helpful test case, because he is not one of the supposed "thugs" that Trump and other racists like to talk about as a way to dismiss African-Americans' complaints about injustice. Kaepernick has a very public profile as a devout Christian, and he justifies his protest (including the act of kneeling) in the explicitly religious terms that Trump's base typically loves.
Kaepernick is understandably appalled that America treats black lives so cavalierly. Trump obviously does not care about that at all. When Kaepernick says, "America is doing something wrong, and we can and should do better," he is in an odd way a more articulate version of Trump, who constantly disparages this country and its institutions while claiming that he alone knows how to do better.
Yet it is Kaepernick, not Trump, who is deemed not to love America. "America, love it or leave it" evidently applies only to those whose criticisms white people do not want to hear.
It is amazing that Trump's DNA-level racism was still not clear to some people after Charlottesville, and I have no doubt that some people will continue to claim that Trump is doing nothing wrong now. Yet there is something about Trump's attack on black athletes that has clarified the issue for many people in ways that his defense of some "fine people" marching with neo-Nazis and Klansmen did not.
There are, moreover, other "tells" in Trump's repertoire of racism. When the surprising Brexit vote hit the news in the Spring of 2016, Trump was pleased. As I noted in a column at the time, however, there was absolutely no reason for an avowed America Firster to care about that vote at all:
"One group of non-Americans voted to harm themselves, based on unfounded fears about other groups of non-Americans who have moved into a country that is not the United States."What if we were to put something like the Brexit vote anywhere else, not with white (nominally Christian) distant cousins of people like Trump voting to kick out nonwhite newcomers but with, say, one country in South America splitting along some nonracial dimension?
Would Trump care? No, but in the UK it was all about white people "taking back their country" from the hordes of illegitimate outsiders. Just as he does not mind using white Canadian and Russian hockey players as props for his "no black athletes at the White House" reception, Trump shows that skin color matters more to him than nationality.
As I further argued last year, Trump's embrace of Brexit was an especially clarifying moment, because Trump indirectly acknowledged that Brexit would be bad for U.S. workers. That is, he noted that the British pound would probably weaken, which would be good for tourism to the UK and thus Trump's golf courses.
But that change in exchange rates also necessarily means that American goods will be less competitive, hurting especially the current and former manufacturing workers who have rallied behind Trump. The expression of racist resentment by whites in Britain was more important to Trump than helping American workers (of all races).
As I was thinking overnight about what I would write in this column, I recalled that I had revisited the Brexit issue in a column last August, where I pointed out that Trump had asked one of Brexit's leaders, Nigel Farage, to speak for him at a rally in Mississippi. Farage was the perfect white supremacist spokesman, and he was obviously not one who puts America First.
And sure enough, when I opened my news feed this morning, I saw that Farage is now campaigning in Alabama for the crazier Republican in the Senate primary, the ousted Supreme Court justice Roy Moore, who has been embraced by the racist, nativist right.
On the surface, this is a bit of a puzzle, because Trump has formally endorsed Moore's opponent, Luther Strange, who was appointed to the Senate when Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III became Trump's Attorney General. This would suggest that Trump is backing the candidate who is not a white supremacist (or is at least less of one), but that would be misleading.
Trump blurted out his initial attack on Kaepernick and black athletes, in fact, when Trump was speaking at a rally for Strange. Trump all but said there that he preferred Moore to Strange, but he was being forced to mouth support for the appointed incumbent. Given that so many of Trump's core supporters in Alabama are Moore supporters, Trump was doing everything possible to say, "Hey, I'm still one of you. Let's unite again behind our shared hatred of black people!"
Farage's presence, then, can be seen not as a repudiation of Trump but as a matter of surrogacy. For complicated reasons, Trump cannot currently admit that he prefers the more extreme of the two candidates, but his British mouthpiece is there to tell everyone what white supremacists on both sides of the Pond know: Moore is Trump's kind of guy.
In the end, this strange interlude will be best remembered for Trump's decision to use race once again to divide the country, elevating what had been a minor issue into a major racial clash. That so much of the country -- even the morally backward NFL leadership and many team owners -- rejected Trump's provocations is a good thing, of course.
We could, therefore, come out of this with a double win. Trump has proved once again that he cares more about white supremacy than anything else, convincing ever more people to stop pretending that he is redeemable. And large numbers of people -- even his friends -- told Trump that he is wrong. Not a bad week.