Trump used racist language. Now what?

Pres. Trump’s latest controversy is his twitter attack on “the squad”: four Democratic first-term Members of Congress, two of whom are Muslims, and all of whom are women of color.  He tweeted, among other things, that all four hate the US, and that they should all “go back” to the countries from which they came.

The four squad members are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan (who is Muslim), Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (who also is Muslim).  The first three are native-born U.S. citizens, so it is a puzzle to what countries Trump thinks they should return.  The fourth, Rep. Omar, was born in Somalia and naturalized as a U.S. citizen when she was seventeen years old.

I think if a white person in the U.S. tells a person of color to “go back” to the country from which she came, that message can properly be characterized as racist.  So, for me, the content of Trump’s tweets was racist, and it is a sad, disappointing, and embarrassing day when our president stoops to such language.

But, even if we all agree that Trump’s tweets used racist language, does it follow that Pres. Trump himself is a racist, or is it possible to draw a distinction between the language a person has used and the character of the person himself?

History proves that some of Pres. Trump’s fiercest critics embrace such a distinction—or, more precisely, they embrace the distinction when a member of their own party is being scrutinized.  Consider a very recent case involving Rep. Omar, a full-fledged member of the squad.

In February of this year, just weeks after being sworn in as a new member of Congress, Rep. Omar tweeted that the support that Israel receives from elected officials in Washington is “all about the Benjamins baby.”  The clear implication was that the votes of elected officials had been bought.

The notion that Jews use their substantial and ill-gotten wealth to bribe and thereby control gentile governments is a classic anti-Semitic theme.  Omar’s tweet—taken together with other arguably anti-Semitic statements she had previously made, and also with her public support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—elicited a loud chorus of condemnation.  Her statement was widely seen—by Republicans, Democrats, and independents—as anti-Semitic.

In response, Omar said she never intended “to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole,” and she therefore “unequivocally apologize(d).”  But, regardless of what she did or did not intend, she never stated that she had been factually mistaken in implying that support for Israel had been purchased with bribes.

In fact, in the very same statement that is supposed to amount to an apology, Omar goes on to say: “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.  It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”  So, instead of offering an apology that explicitly rejects the idea that Washington politicians have been bribed to take pro-Israel stances, her “apology” seemingly “reaffirm(s)” that same idea.

Every elected Democratic politician in Washington has explicitly or implicitly accepted the position that, even if Omar’s first tweet rehashed an old anti-Semitic theme, her subsequent “apology” somehow proves that Omar is not herself an anti-Semite.  And this proof is accepted notwithstanding the fact that the apology never rejects, and even “reaffirm(s)”, the false claims underlying the first tweet.

So, at least when the question is whether a Muslim Congresswoman who is a Democrat is herself an anti-Semite, people who belong to that same political party are very careful to distinguish between her remarks and her character.  Thus, the precedent set in the Omar case offers hope that, even if his tweets had a disappointingly racist caste, it may still be possible that Pres. Trump is not himself a racist.

Anyone who has watched Pres. Trump in office knows that the word “apology” will almost certainly never be used by him in speaking, writing, or tweeting.  It simply is not in his nature to say, “I apologize.”  But, if Rep. Omar can explicitly “apologize” for an anti-Semitic remark without rejecting the falsities on which the remark is based, the use of that word would seem to be entirely optional.

What Mr. Trump has said is this: “Those Tweets were NOT Racist.  I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”  So, Rep.Omar did not mean to offend anyone with her anti-Semitic remarks, and she therefore cannot properly be called an anti-Semite.  If that is the standard, it would seem that Pres. Trump did not intentionally make any racist remarks, and he therefore certainly could never have intended to offend anyone with racist remarks.  Does that mean that Pres. Trump is not a racist?  I hope so.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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