It took the events of this summer—beginning when Donald Trump told four accomplished American women of color to go back where they came from, and climaxing when a Trump-inspired terrorist murdered 22 people in the border city of El Paso, TX—for the political establishment outside the Republican Party to finally unlock the imponderable mystery of whether Trump is a racist. “Throughout his career as a real estate magnate, a celebrity provocateur and a politician, Trump has recoiled from being called the r-word, even though some of his actions and words have been plainly racist,” read a characteristic acknowledgement in the Washington Post.
But in lieu of a mass reckoning over what the country must do about its racist president, the main change has been somewhat less productive.
Before this summer, when Donald Trump did something racist, reporters swarmed Democrats to ask them whether Donald Trump was a racist. Now, they swarm Democrats to ask them whether Donald Trump is a white supremacist. “An extraordinary charge,” Axios tells us.
It’s disturbingly easy to imagine this tedious go-round repeating itself when Trump eventually settles the question of whether he’s a white supremacist and we move on to the next, more terrifying one.
But for the time being Democrats should address the issue squarely, even if the people asking mean only to stoke conflict or make telling plain truths seem politically risky. Because the fact that the president is a racist and indeed a white supremacist is very relevant to the campaign they will have to wage in the coming year to defeat him.
When Trump says things to incite racist hatred, and uses the power of the state to inflict harm on the objects of that hatred, we are told that his purpose is to mobilize voters to help him secure re-election. This is, perhaps, the only way to grapple with the repugnance of Trump’s conduct without peering into his soul, but it both cheapens and misses the real point.
If Trump were really engaged in acts of cruel cynicism devised principally to secure his second and final term in office, it might stand to reason that, should he win, all of this ugliness will stop. But nobody believes that, because nobody really thinks there’s much more to Trump than meets the eye. If he wins, things will only get uglier, and he will become the author of a playbook Republicans will use for years to come.
Every liberal should ponder this, and every Democrat should answer questions about it thoughtfully, because it will be the cardinal fact of next year’s election whether we like it or not. It is of course true that other issues will shape the race and motivate voters, too. But it will not be possible for Democrats to hunker down on the high ground of health care and treat Trump’s programatic racism as a white elephant in the room.
That looming future frightens many Democrats, who recall with horror the time they counted on Trump’s grotesqueness to doom him, and he won. But they are presupposing a few things that aren’t necessarily true: that Trump’s victory in 2016 proves his bigoted politics are at least effective, if not popular; that reckoning honestly with Trump’s racism will energize his base and generate sympathy for him among independent voters; that there is fundamental tension between campaigning against Trump’s character and on the material issues that typically drive politics.
This kind of thinking is commonplace, but it reflects a poverty of imagination about what politics is and why Trump has governed the way he has. Trump’s agenda took this shape because he and his movement are hateful, and the substantive agenda Democrats want to run on stems from the fact that they are not.
We know why Trump rips migrant families apart, just as we know why he did the same thing by different means to Muslim families, and why he called a city where hundreds of thousands of black Americans live “a rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” But the explanation for these depravities is not detached from the explanation for his other deeds. A leader who doesn’t see all people as human or treat all humans equally will have no qualms about throwing tens of millions of them off their health insurance because he fundamentally does not believe lesser beings matter. Trump happily loots the country because he is a crook, yes, but also because he abhors a common good that includes the interests of those he hates or views indifferently.
Democrats can’t confront this kind of sadism with a raft of policy proposals alone, but that doesn’t mean they should subordinate them to empty platitudes about love and hatred either. The challenge for them is to link their agendas to a bigger fight over what kind of society we should be. Yes, all people should have health care, and yes, we should have a real democracy, and a planet that will be habitable for future generations; but the purpose of those goals is to help people, because we’re all human and we care about each other.
The stakes of this election are enormous and scary, but when you accept them the question of how to respond becomes refreshingly clear. If the president is a racist and multiracial democracy is on the line, acknowledging it is important, but so is offering ideas that aren’t just popular when polled but reflect a belief in everyone’s basic humanity. Trump hopes that, by calling him racist, Democrats will leave an impression that they are directing the accusation at anyone who ever voted for him. But they will not leave that impression if they have everyone’s needs, no matter how small or complex, in mind and then ask those voters to make a better choice.
More than one specific agenda fits this bill, but no agenda rooted in different concerns makes sense given the political environment Trump intends to create.
After the second primary debate, a subset of commentators who dislike Trump but aren’t wild about progressive goals swooned to Marianne Williamson—an eccentric, dark horse candidate who has profited handsomely from dangerous ideas—because she warned that Trump has exposed, “the dark underbelly of American society: the racism, the bigotry,” and that if Democrats “think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
“Democrats have not risen to the largeness of this moment,” explained the never-Trump conservative David Brooks. “They don’t know how to speak on this level. They don’t even have the language to articulate what Trump represents and what needs to be done. Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators [Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders] are both materialistic wonks.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that Brooks and other critics omitted the context of Williamson’s remarks, which were about the lead poisoning of the children of Flint, MI, and that her prescription was entirely material in nature. “We need to say it like it is,” she added. “It’s bigger than Flint—it’s all over this country, it’s particularly people of color—it’s particularly people who do not have the money to fight back. And if the Democrats don’t start saying it, then why would those people feel that they’re there for us and if those people don’t feel it, they won’t vote for us, and Donald Trump will win.”
Williamson’s description of what Trump represents—the dark, psychic force of collectivized hatred—struck a chord because it matches the Trump opposition’s collective sense of how sinister he is. But if her language had connected to nothing or to abstractions, it would have been empty. That’s the dead end that we should all avoid. Love trumps hate? Well so what? Democrats shouldn’t fear questions about Trump’s racism, or answering them in withering ways. The big risk they face isn’t backlash for calling Trump a white supremacist, but doing so without a compelling story to tell both his victims and the people he’s failed about what they plan to do to help.