Last night’s presidential debate was a wild ride for voters desperate for some normalcy and decorum. President Donald J Trump spent most of the 90 minutes attacking his opponent, while former Vice President Joe Biden tried to get a word in edgewise. If voters hoped to be reassured that the president would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, or that the president wasn’t supporting the white supremacists around the country who have been attacking Black Lives Matter protesters, they were left wanting. Once again, Trump was asked on the record to denounce the violence caused by radical right wing supremacists’ and again the president fumbled the attempt. Why does the president struggle so much to draw a clear line in the sand against violent groups of white supremacists?
Trump’s Family History with White Supremacy
Long before he became the Republican nominee for president, Trump has been battling an racist image. Trump’s father, Fred Trump, faced allegations of housing discrimination. The elder Trump built multiple middle-income housing projects, and in 1973 a federal complaint was lodged against him that claimed he was discriminating against Black tenants. By the time the complaint had been lodged, Donald Trump had already taken over the family business as president.
A 2016 Mic article explains the Trump family troubles with discrimination; “Federal authorities alleged the Trump organization was not renting to black people. According to the Village Voice, the federal complaint forced Trump to actively promote his company’s properties within minority communities to attract black renters.
…stories have emerged that paint [Trump] and his father as real estate titans who actively excluded blacks. In the early 1950s, Woody Guthrie found a Fred Trump operated housing complex to be almost exclusively white. Black renters have recalled being denied housing in the 1960s at Trump properties.
‘By 1967, state investigators found that out of some 3,700 apartments in Trump Village, seven were occupied by African-American families,’ the New York Times reported. And as Nicholas Kristof noted in a Times column on racism and Trump, black test renters were told no apartments were available while white testers were immediately shown apartments.
And the family’s possible connections to racist policies goes deeper than housing. In 1927, someone by the name of Fred Trump was reportedly arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally in New York City, when Donald Trump’s father would have been 21 years old. His son denied his father was arrested at that rally, along with other accusations of racial bias.”
The Central Park Five
In 1989, a woman named Trisha Meili was brutally attacked and raped in Central Park. Five boys, all Black or latino, were arrested shortly after. USA Today reports, “Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise were all boys when they were convicted of raping Trisha Meili. They were then found innocent of the crime after convicted murder[er] Matias Reyes in 2002 confessed to raping Meili, which was confirmed by DNA evidence. The city awarded the men $41 million in 2014, a decade after some of the men initially sued the city for how it handled the case.”
Two weeks after Meili’s attack, Trump inserted himself into the situation. The New York businessman took out full page ads in the local papers, which USA Today describes; “Less than two weeks after the attack on Meili, Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York City newspapers with the headline: ‘BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!’
The $85,000 worth of ads were published on May 1, 1989, in The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post and New York Newsday. In a statement included in the ad, Trump criticized crime in the city and claimed there was no more ‘law and order.’
Trump, then a popular business mogul, claimed that the city was being ‘ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter.’
‘At what point did we cross the line from the fine and noble pursuit of genuine civil liberties to the reckless and dangerously permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman and then laugh at her family’s anguish?’ he continued in the ad.
…Trump in the ad said he hated ‘these muggers and murderers.’
‘They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples for their crimes,’ he continued. ‘They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.'”
It’s thought that Trump’s aggressive public information campaign changed minds, and turned public opinion against the 5 boys. It may have even changed the course of their trial. Even though the men were exonerated, Trump continued to refer to them as criminals and muggers for decades.
‘The Racists Believe He’s a Racist’
Quoting former candidate for Florida governor Andrew Gillum who was asked whether or not he thought opponent Ron DeSantis was a racist, “the racists believe he’s a racist.” Whether or not Trump solicited their support, in 2016, the former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, David Duke, endorsed Trump for president. The former KKK leader again endorsed Trump in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
When asked whether or not he would condemn white supremacy and reject Duke’s endorsement, the president waffled in his response. CNN reports, “In February 2016, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump, then a candidate for the Republican nomination, whether he would flatly reject the support of white supremacist groups and, in particular, former longtime KKK leader David Duke. ‘Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK?,’ Trump responded, adding: ‘I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I don’t know — did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.'”
The president seemed unaware that the expected response was for him to outright reject Duke’s endorsement and condemn white supremacy. While it seems obvious to observers, it points to two possibilities: either Trump is oblivious as to social norms and expectations, or he understood what was expected of him but chose not to condemn white supremacy for his own reasons.
Charlottesville Highlights the President’s Problem with White Supremacy
Although both Trump’s involvement with his father’s discriminatory housing practices and his weird butting-in on the Central Park Five case, both of those are long in the past and could have been handled with a mea culpa by the President. People might not necessarily have believed him, but there would have been a way to settle Trump’s dodgy past with racism, if in fact it was in the past.
However, in 2017, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly when a counter-protester was intentionally struck with a car and killed. In the days following Heather Heyer’s death, Trump equivocated on who was to blame. CNN details; “In August 2017, in the wake of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a counter-protester dead, Trump insisted that ‘many sides’ were to blame for the violence. Days later, he doubled down on that sentiment, saying that ‘there is blame on both sides,’ and adding: ‘What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right,’ do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do.'”
When pressed to explain his, “both sides,” approach when violence only occurred from the white supremacists at the rally, Trump almost condemned white supremacists; “It’s fine, you’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people – and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay?”
While the words, “they should be condemned,” do appear in the President’s statement, he continues to suggest that those at the rally were mixed in with good people. The question remains: who shows up to support a white supremacy rally besides white supremacists?
What Happened During the Debate?
During what has been called the most contentious debate in American history, the president was once again given the chance to reject the support of white supremacists and condemn their violence. Again here, the president weirdly waffled.
In a transcript of the debate, DailyMail reveals the disturbing exchange between debate moderator Chris Wallace, Trump, and Biden.
“CHRIS WALLACE: You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left wing extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.
DONALD TRUMP: Sure, I’m willing to do that.
CHRIS WALLACE: Are you prepared specifically to do it.
DONALD TRUMP: I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing not from the right wing.
CHRIS WALLACE: But what are you saying?
DONALD TRUMP: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
CHRIS WALLACE: Well, do it, sir.
JOE BIDEN: Say it, do it say it.
DONALD TRUMP: What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead who do you want me to condemn.
CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacist and white militia.
DONALD TRUMP: Okay, boys stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem this is a left wing.”
Once again when given a chance to clearly denounce and condemn white supremacists, the president sidestepped.
So Why Does the President Consistently Fail to Stand Up to White Supremacy?
There are three main possibilities here:
- Trump is oblivious. It’s possible that with the privileged and removed-from-society life that the president has lived, he may be unaware of the impacts of white supremacist violence.
- It’s a political move. While some of his supporters are often uncomfortable considering it, the fact that white supremacists resonate with his platform means that a lot of his support would evaporate if he took a hard stance against white supremacy. While trump has almost condemned them in the past, he consistently falls short of saying convincingly that he finds their support abhorrent.
- The most ominous one, and the possibility that has people the most worried, is that Trump is fine with the white supremacy platform. Trump’s checkered history with racism suggests that the president may, at best, genuinely see, “both sides,” as valid. At worst, he may actually support the nationalist platform of groups like the KKK and Proud Boys.
Will Trump’s Comments at the Debate Change Anything?
It’s unlikely that the president’s opponents will be able to pin him to the wall on this. Every time Trump has had a chance in the past to take a hard stance against white supremacy, he fails to. This likely wont be any different. Even today, as the ACLU and other civil rights organizations decry Trump’s comments directing the Proud Boys to, “stand back and stand by,” Trump focuses on anything else. The Proud Boys, meanwhile, have updated their website to reflect that they are, “standing by,” for the President.
It may not matter in the end whether Trump is himself a supremacist or refuses to condemn them. As Gillum said, it’s enough that the racists think he’s on their side. His waffling gives them confidence that they can act with impunity under a president who won’t take decisive action against them. It’s a frightening scenario: emboldened hate groups working freely in a country under a leadership who’s willing to look the other way. Empires have fallen for less before.