Racism in the Era of Trump: An Oral History

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January 13, 2020

A part of the story of America’s political journey from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump was the rise of racial anger — as seen in the crude, racist stereotypes of Obama that showed up on signs at Tea Party rallies, and in the mainstreaming of the conspiracy that the country’s first African American president was not born in the United States.

Trump, a real-estate developer and reality TV star, became the face of the so-called “birther” movement — and in the process attracted a political base that would support his eventual run for the presidency.

This oral history — drawn from interviews conducted for FRONTLINE’s America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump — traces how Trump used the birther conspiracy as his political launching pad, how his response to a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville drew rebuke even from members of his own party, and how he has continued to leverage anti-immigrant rhetoric as a political tool. It includes accounts from former Obama and Trump administration officials, Republican lawmakers, veteran journalists and political commentators.

Note: The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length and have been drawn from FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project.

Trump’s embrace of the “birther” conspiracy

Wesley Lowery political correspondent, The Washington Post
From the very early days of the Obama candidacy, there was an effort. It begins with kind of whispers and blog posts, and then insinuations made by some cable TV host or talk radio host, that there was something different, something “other” about Barack Obama, the skepticism of him, that he must have done something wrong. He must have cheated. He must not be what he says he is, because how could he be, right? There’s this hyper obsession around his college transcripts because “could he have really gotten into all those schools and done so well at them,” right? …And then there’s this obsession with his origin, with where he’s from, where he was born. And this became a very simple and in some ways effective means of otherizing then-candidate Obama: Well, he’s not even from here; he’s not one of us. Prove it. Prove you were born here.

Now, it was clear that President [Barack] Obama was born in the United States. It was clear that he was eligible to be elected president if the voters so chose. But why the birther movement was so powerful was because it spoke to all types of other anxieties that many white Americans had about Barack Obama; that there was something about him that was just different; that there was something that was sinister; that he must have cheated; that he must be bending or breaking the rules.

Jelani Cobb staff writer, The New Yorker
One of the things, I think, that seems now like, fantastically naïve is the kind of vogue comment that Obama’s election suggested that we were headed toward being a post-racial society, which was ridiculous on its face for lots of reasons. But if you needed any evidence of the invalidity of that idea, you simply had to look at the culture surrounding the Tea Party and the reaction that you saw to the Affordable Care Act.

The reactions to Obama were not simply about policy. They were about the race of the person promoting that policy. So the Affordable Care Act, in that context, becomes something that is akin to welfare. And conspiracy theories proliferate: the death panels; the black president is going to come and kill your grandmother; that the fact that this is something which is being negotiated with insurance companies but is nonetheless thought of as the knife’s edge of his socialist agenda. …

But just as everything else about Obama was kind of viewed through a lens of race, it wasn’t simply a matter of, “I disagree with this policy on principle.” There are these rallies where they’re depicting Obama as an ape on signs that they’re carrying. There are points that are making reference to him in all sorts of ways that kind of refer to pejorative stereotypes about Africa and Africans; that this is not simply a disagreement about policy; this is a repudiation of Obama and, more significantly, a repudiation of Obama’s race and the possibility of it coexisting within the White House.

David Axelrod senior adviser in the Obama administration
[W]hen I was in the White House, I was really eager not to engage in the discussion about how much race motivated some of the opposition. But the reality is, a lot of it was race. I mean, a lot of the sort of very, very overheated opposition to Obama was race-related, and it went to this deeper sense on the part of segments of our society who believe that they were being displaced, that they were being discarded. He became a symbol of that even as he pursued policies that would help those communities. And, you know, it was deeply frustrating, but it spoke to just how ingrained these sentiments are.

Molly Ball national political correspondent, Time
Trump had been making noises about running for president for decades, but in this era he really created his political brand on questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship, teaming up with fringe conspiracy theorists like Joe Arpaio in Arizona to hunt for the birth certificate, long after the idea that Obama might not have been actually born in Hawaii had been resoundingly debunked continuing to beat this drum of what Obama and others saw as really just a racist attempt to convince people that Obama was The Other, that he wasn’t one of us, that he was a secret Muslim and couldn’t possibly be American.

And so that was what sort of launched [Trump] in contemporary politics. It got him on the radar of some of the more fringe right-wing media and got the attention of a lot of the sort of Tea Party activists who were concerned with this kind of American identity issue.

David Axelrod senior adviser in the Obama administration
[T]here was a significant percentage of Republicans who questioned whether the president was actually a citizen. And at the core of it was less about whether he was a citizen than whether he was legitimate, that, you know, there was a question—the question behind birtherism was, should a black man occupy the Oval Office? I mean, really, that’s what birtherism was about. It was about race, pure and simple. And Donald Trump knew that when he picked it up. He saw it as a way of inflaming and developing a racial base for himself in American politics.

Steve Schmidt political strategist for George W. Bush and the John McCain presidential campaign
And so Donald Trump went out, and he had been stoking racial grievance through the birther issue for some period of time. He came from that wing of the Republican Party, and he went all in on it. And it was at a moment in time at the end of eight years of Barack Obama, with a fatally flawed opponent who would ultimately be the Democratic nominee, it was a message, a grievance message, that worked.

President Trump’s response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville

Wesley Lowery political correspondent, The Washington Post
Charlottesville was a clash between these forces, the forces of these far-right groups and then counterprotesters of them, folks who say, “Why are there Nazis in our streets? We’re going to go get them out,” people who feel the need to protect their communities, their livelihoods. …We see time and time again videos of the far-right protesters beating black attendees of the counterprotest. A man drives his vehicle into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer and wounding others. This was an incident that was clearly the tail of these far-right, white supremacist powers emboldened and out of control. And yet, in response to it, the president equivocates. He says, “There are very fine people on both sides.”

Steve Bannon former chief strategist in the Trump White House
In talking to the president the next day—and I think Trump—and this is where the mainstream media smeared him, because he was very adamant about what he said, about the Confederate monuments. He says there are very good people on both sides. There are. I come from Richmond, Virginia. In the commonwealth of Virginia, there is a heated and active debate on about the Confederate monuments, all the battlefields, everything, about cultural heritage, racism, all that, from two sets of people and voters. Democrats and Republicans and Independents are having a—and this is all being worked out at the local level, at the commonwealth level, at the city level. …

When it comes to the monuments, there are good people on both sides. That’s what he said, right? “There are fine people on both sides.” He understands what the argument is, and what the argument is is about the nation’s history, and where does it end? And that’s where he said there’s good people on both sides.

Jelani Cobb author, The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress
I think Charlottesville is important because — I mean, there’s been racism in American politics since there’s been American politics. … And eventually, you get to a point where you’re still playing the politics of racial resentment, but it’s in this very coded way. What Charlottesville did was reemphasize something that people really had good reason to know already, which is that Trump had dispensed with those old politics of coded racial language; that you could have a situation in which a white supremacist drives a vehicle, at full speed, into a crowd of protesters and kills an innocent woman, and the president of the United States could say that they were nonetheless very fine people who were on that side of the equation as well. t’s kind of a strange contrast, because on the one hand, if there are people who are identifying themselves as Nazis, you would think that other people would be tainted by association. But his commentary was saying that that’s not necessarily the case; that you can be in association with these people, that people who are going out and chanting that “Jews will not replace us,” people who are carrying torches, who are shouting racial epithets and those aspects that are kind of under the rock of American history, yeah, that has now entered the mainstream and become part of American politics, part of the dialogue.

Cliff Sims former communications aide in the Trump White House
So if you give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt, and he says, you know, this comment that there were “good people on both sides,” what does he mean by that? Well, what he means is, there are—you know, the monument debate. Should we have Confederate monuments? There are good people out there who say: “I hate racism. I hate slavery. But I also think that these monuments are a reminder of a very dark period of our history that we should not erase. We should remember these bad parts of our history as well.” And then there are good people who say: “We shouldn’t have monuments to slavery. We shouldn’t have monuments to racism. And that’s what I think they are, and I think they should go.” I think reasonable people can agree that on both sides of that conversation, there could be good, well-meaning, decent people.

If you think Donald Trump is a racist, then you think that he just said there are good people on both sides, meaning there are good white supremacists out there and good non-white supremacists out there. You know, whatever. It just depends on your perspective on it. But the blowback to Charlottesville was so severe that it was really the first time that I heard, especially among more junior staffers, people asking the questions: “What does this mean for the rest of my career? Am I now inextricably tied to Donald Trump in a way that’s going to keep me from being able to get a job in the future?,” or, “Am I so offended by what I just heard that I have to leave out of principle?”

Molly Ball national political correspondent, Time
And so when Charlottesville happened, it shocked a lot of people. It shocked members of his own administration. It shocked people in the Cabinet and his advisers and so on. And so my Republican sources in Congress, many of them were horrified, and the idea was that they—nobody wanted to defend what Trump had said. And so they were sort of gobsmacked when—there’s regular talking points that come out from the White House communications operation and are sent to Capitol Hill so that the party can all be on the same page and everyone can make the same arguments in support of the policies they’ve all agreed to get behind.

But this was sort of different. This was at a time when there was almost universal condemnation of Trump’s rhetoric. The White House was trying to tell its allies on Capitol Hill the president is exactly correct, and here is how you defend what he has just said. And in retrospect, it is a sort of marker, a signpost of the kind of loyalty that Trump would demand from Capitol Hill and the sort of place he would force them into on these divisive issues, that even a lot of Republicans who might have carved out reputations as moderates or as, you know, immigration reformers or what have you, they were going to have to accept the president’s rhetoric, if not in this particular case, then just overall.

Jeff Flake former U.S. senator from Arizona
I reacted in a way that most of my colleagues did as well, that this was not—not where a president should be. [T]his was a layup. This was easy, you know. If there’s white supremacy in any form, you condemn it. I mean, that’s the easy thing to do. And he didn’t.

Charlie Dent former member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania
One of the challenges of Charlottesville was if Charlottesville had just happened in isolation, if we hadn’t experienced the comments about the Mexicans, Muslims, and you remember the president got in this issue with [former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and white nationalist politician] David Duke where he failed to condemn David Duke…

So he had that history that I believe compounded the Charlottesville situation. You know, he might have been given a little bit more leeway on Charlottesville had there not been all these other issues, but because of past statements and actions and then his inability to clearly define the issue in Charlottesville and immediately denounce the [white] nationalists and neo-Nazis and others, I think that’s what created the problem.

Yamiche Alcindor White House correspondent, PBS NewsHour
Charlottesville is probably the first time where the country realizes, “This is going to get bad.” And by the president not acknowledging that the murder of an American citizen by a supporter of white supremacy is totally unacceptable, by him not doing that, he gives weight to the ideas of racists, and fast-forward, you see an increasing number of hate crimes. You see people telling their neighbors to go back to their countries. You see the president later ratcheting up his rhetoric. And it is the beginning of a time in America where people realize that America is not just a place where racist ideals can exist, but it’s a place where racist ideals can be fueled by the White House.

President Trump’s use of anti-immigrant rhetoric as a political tool

Susan Glasser columnist and staff writer, The New Yorker
You know, immigration has been central to Trump’s identity as a political figure since the moment he rode down that escalator in Trump Tower and started talking about Mexicans and rapists.

Judy Woodruff anchor and managing editor, PBS NewsHour
I think for President Trump, immigration becomes another way of saying, “We don’t need to let people in who don’t look like us.” And even as he denies that it’s racist or that he’s anti-Mexico, or anti-Central America, it has the effect of being a statement about tolerance, acceptance in this country, and—in essence, it’s saying to his base: “I’m with you. If you’re worried about America changing, if you’re worried about America becoming a diverse place, where you’re not sure of how you fit in anymore, I’m here to tell you, I have some of those same worries, and I’m going to speak up, you know, for you. I’m going to be here. I’m going to fight this.”

Jelani Cobb staff writer, The New Yorker
[T]he presidency is the most important platform in the country, possibly the most important platform in the world. And when the president talks about immigrant populations, particularly Hispanics, in ways that are dehumanizing, he refers to people as animals, refers to people as rapists and criminals, when he paints with a broad brush about who members of that community are, it gives aid and comfort to people who are inclined to act upon their worst impulses.

Charlie Sykes founder and editor-at-large, The Bulwark
Donald Trump didn’t invent these darker impulses. They were preexisting conditions, but he found a way to tap into them and bring them out. And so there was a lot that was latent there. There was a lot of things that I think had been growing for some time that the Republican Party leadership had ignored or had dismissed but that he decided he was going to stoke those fires, and the success was pretty obvious.

By the way, part of it also was that he managed to take all of those anxieties of all those forgotten Americans and very quickly said: “It’s not your fault. It’s these people’s fault. It’s the immigrants’ fault.” He managed to make them the target and the theme, and so all of that resentment is channeled through Donald Trump at immigrants, at foreign countries. It’s the Mexicans; it’s the Chinese. And people said: “Yeah, it’s nothing I’ve done. I’m not responsible for this. My country has betrayed me because it’s allowed these people to do this to me.”

Yamiche Alcindor White House correspondent, PBS NewsHour
The president is always thinking about turnout in his base, and he decides that he wants to start using the caravans of immigrants coming to the United States as a foil for the 2018 midterms. And what we see is the president running ads that are deemed too racist even for Fox News to air, which is saying a lot.

Susan Glasser columnist and staff writer, The New Yorker
Donald Trump, in the week before the [2018] midterm elections, decides to say that the United States is under the threat of invasion from a caravan of essentially poor migrants, women and children. Obviously, they weren’t invading the United States. And he uses this militaristic language, and then he actually orders up an actual militaristic response. …

He orders thousands of actual U.S. military forces to the southern border of the United States in order to counter a migrant caravan that’s still hundreds of miles away, of women and children.

Charlie Sykes author, How the Right Lost Its Mind
Well, the caravan was the perfect issue for Donald Trump because it showed it was America under attack and that he was standing as the defender of America; that America was under attack by thousands of these dark aliens who were coming to take your jobs and your women. This was the theme that Donald Trump, I think, felt most comfortable with in this campaign. And the pictures made for perfect imagery in conservative media because it was not abstract. And so of course, the president used his considerable power of the bully pulpit to draw as much attention to it as possible to create an emergency and to create a crisis that, again, would cause people to rally around him.

But this is part of what Trump has to do. Trump has to have an enemy. Trump has to make Americans fearful. He has to convince Americans that they are under attack or they are victimized in some way and that these are the enemies, and only I can protect you. And you’re going to see that throughout 2020.


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Digital Reporter & Producer, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@priyankaboghani

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