By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
I grew up around racists in an all-white community during the 1960s, so I know what they sound like and how they act. Without a doubt, Donald Trump is the most unusual racist I’ve ever seen.
It’s a rare individual indeed who can break bread at the same time with a white supremacist and a Black antisemite, welcome their support, and leave some people still debating whether Trump is a racist or not.
Trump is what I call an indifferent racist. He will embrace absolutely anyone who is of immediate use to him. That’s why he will say things like there were “good people on both sides” of the deadly clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlotte in 2017.
The former president has been hailing West since 2018 and claims to have done more for Blacks than any president since Abraham Lincoln. Yet Trump and his father’s real-estate business were the target of racial discrimination allegations and a federal civil rights lawsuit in the 1970s. During his time in office, Trump wanted to violently crush the Black Lives Matter movement and the nationwide protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by police officers.
Trump frequently spouts the antisemitic trope that Jewish people have dual allegiances to America and Israel, yet among his actions as President were moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and former antagonists Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Trump has described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” strongly suggested that Mexican immigrants are mostly drug dealers and rapists, that people who are Chinese (such as Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s Secretary of Transportation) or who have names that sound Chinese (such as Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin) are Communist sympathizers, and tried to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Yet he claimed during a 2020 debate with Joe Biden to be “the least racist person in the room” and many people still believe that.
It’s hardly unusual for racists to deny they are racist — they are either too cowardly to admit it or they have absolutely no grasp of what racism is — but they usually carry a consistent, obvious contempt if not hatred for those they look down upon. They can’t bear to be in the same room with them.
The bottom line with Trump is always what is in it for him rather than how he can actively hurt minority groups he dislikes. The damage he does is usually incidental, a byproduct of his self-interest if that’s where his self-interest leads.
Trump reminds me of former American Major League manager Billy Martin’s statement: “I’d let Hitler pitch for me if he could get left-handers out.” Yet Trump will quickly turn on anyone who crosses him or ceases to be of help.
So it’s no surprise that Trump’s recent dinner later devolved into a public hissing match between him and West once the media, public and even GOP blowback hit, possibly damaging his candidacy for President in 2024. (The cynic in me can't help feeling that Republicans who condemned him for it wouldn’t have cared much at all if the midterms had gone better for the party.)
Trump called West “troubled” and claimed West set him up by inviting Nick Fuentes, about whom Trump claimed ignorance. Never mind that Fuentes is very well-known in Republican circles and has been an open, high-profile supporter of Trump.
When the heat is on, Trump’s “I don’t know so-and-so” tactic is now as inevitable as the sunrise. It pretty much guarantees that, if need be, he will thrice disown even Melania, Ivanka, and old pal Rudy Giuliani before the cock crows twice.
Trump’s behavior would have torpedoed most public figures long before now, but he maintains his popularity and political viability because he’s able to milk the cognitive dissonance that grips so many of his supporters, even those in minorities. It’s why they can claim Trump loves America even though he dodged serving in the military, avoids paying taxes to help fund the country, and sows unfounded but corrosive distrust in the institutions of our democracy.
His claims about anything can be blatantly, mind-numbingly false, but there’s an unshakeable belief in his base that he is merely using BS as a tool to serve them. They never see that they are classic marks for an extraordinary con man who will leave them high and dry as soon as it is expedient for him.
The worst danger in Trump’s brand of weather-vane racism is that it provides a national stage and legitimacy to virulent cranks like West and Fuentes. It normalizes their views in the national discourse the same way Trump’s lies have made crackpot conspiracy theories and political violence part of the everyday scenery. It’s the normalization of insanity and Trump has been making racism acceptable in a way that bigots of the kind I grew up with could only dream about.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.