Here is a story about three tapes: one that does exist, one that might exist, and one that doesn’t.
The first one, the Access Hollywood tape, cemented the foundational myth of Donald Trump’s presidency—that he is invulnerable to political scandals of his own making.
Trump explained on that tape that he exploits his star power to “grab [women] by the pussy” with impunity, and one month after it surfaced, he became president (hat tip: Julian Assange*, James Comey*).
It became commonplace after that experience for jaded liberals and savvy politicos alike to either ascribe Trump mystical political powers or imagine that the 63 million people who voted for him were all hopelessly brainwashed or vile. If that tape didn’t matter, then nothing could possibly matter.
There are many asterisks to this story, including the two above, because a simpler telling clashes with the awful reality that he is still the president. On the day the Access Hollywood footage came to light, Trump’s support in the polls was falling, and it fell further once voters processed what they saw. No, it didn’t cost him the presidency, but it has in many ways defined it: Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin. He entered office not just historically unpopular, but widely and rightly loathed. That antipathy inspired a vast, worldwide protest the day after his inauguration and has fueled the largest social justice movements the country has seen in decades. He has never escaped the taint of that tape. Anger over it persists both for the obvious reason, and because the majority of the country is concerned about the knock-on effect for our culture that a man could confess to serial sexual assault, maintain a frothing political base, and be rewarded with high office.
That tape mattered, a lot, for good and for bad. Trump knows it matters, even as he pretends it did not.
This explains the odd contrast we’re seeing today between Trump, who frets openly that a different damaging tape, documenting him using the n-word in conversation on the set of The Apprentice will come to light, and once-bitten, twice-shy liberals, who are convinced that if such a tape emerges, it will have at most a fleeting impact on American politics.
This is the tape that might exist. Its shadow has been with us since 2016, but it is eclipsing the political news cycle once again thanks to Trump’s former aide, Omarosa Manigault Newman, who alleges in a new book that Trump has a casual relationship with the n-word.
This is not a hoax, like the 2008 rumor that Michelle Obama had been recorded mocking and disparaging white people. The Obama campaign was unfazed by those rumors at the time, because the candidate and his wife knew they were false—both in their particulars and in the way they were designed to caricature the Obamas as loose-lipped angry black people. That’s what it looks like when a tape definitely doesn’t exist.
We don’t know if Trump’s does, but it isn’t hucksterism to suspect it might. Trump’s racism is largely unconcealed, there is ample testimony about how he talks when he thinks no one’s listening, and, most importantly, Trump, unlike Obama, can’t guarantee that it does not.
.@MarkBurnettTV called to say that there are NO TAPES of the Apprentice where I used such a terrible and disgusting word as attributed by Wacky and Deranged Omarosa. I don’t have that word in my vocabulary, and never have. She made it up. Look at her MANY recent quotes saying….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2018
To belabor the obvious, if Trump weren’t comfortable tossing around the n-word, he’d know a tape of him saying it couldn’t exist, and would thus not fear its emergence. The fact that he sought an assurance that “NO TAPES” would surface is tantamount to a confession that he has used the word freely, and merely contends the evidence doesn’t exist or has been destroyed. And the fact that he’s alarmed at all suggests he knows such a tape might imperil his already teetering presidency.
Trump is right to worry, and those who are jaded by the history of the Access Hollywood tape are wrong to be so categorical.
As revealing and embarrassing as Trump’s enduring popularity with Republican voters is—as easy as it is to imagine them as a kind of unbreakable dam—I trust Trump to know where he’s vulnerable better than I trust my own cynicism about self-identified Republican voters. Those voters have cheered or tolerated all of Trump’s racism. But that is racism as it should be defined. As I noted last week, millions of Americans believe racism only describes people who use forbidden slurs in casual conversation. Hearing Trump do that would, as a matter of almost mathematical certainty, be a turning point for some of them, and Trump can’t really afford to lose even a small sliver of his remaining support.
Like the Access Hollywood tape, an n-word tape would thrust Trump into a severe crisis, and like the Access Hollywood tape, we might then confront the possibility that Trump survives it, leaving his millions of dead-enders feeling further empowered in their bigotries.
But that’s no reason to look away. We are not indulging conspiracy theories or being naive about politics to think a tape like this might exist, and would matter. It’s a story that needs to be run to ground.