If for some reason you've been wondering whether President Donald Trump would sink even lower into racist provocation with the midterm election only a few days away, here's your answer:
Trump tweeted “It is outrageous what the Democrats are doing to our Country. Vote Republican now! Vote. GOP”
I’ll leave it to our intrepid fact-checkers to document the lies in the ad, other than to note that just about every word in it is false. What’s more important is the president’s objectives and tactics, not to mention the fact that he put out this rancid poison just five days after a gunman killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history, in part because he believed the conspiracy theories propagated by the president and his supporters about immigrants threatening America, then joined it to his hatred of the Jews he thought were responsible. Five days.
If you have a long memory, you’ll recall that in 2016 many Republicans assured us that once he beheld the majesty of the Oval Office and its awesome responsibilities, Trump would become “presidential.” The bombastic, dishonest race-baiter we watched during the campaign was really just an act, and in office he’d become more serious and responsible.
What actually happened was just the opposite. It’s true that Trump isn’t the same man we saw on the campaign trail in 2016. He’s worse.
Because it lacks even the subtlety your average racist demagogue musters in 2018, this ad is particularly Trumpian. From the moment he became a candidate, Trump would say explicitly what others would only imply, in ways that some found thrilling and others found appalling. Sometimes it was because saying it explicitly would make you sound like a toddler; for instance, while regular candidates might find ways to persuade you of their intelligence, none but Trump would come out and say “I’m, like, really smart,” and if they did you’d immediately conclude that smart is the last thing they are.
But whether Trump is, like, really smart is to some degree a matter of opinion and interpretation. At other times, when Trump says explicitly what others only imply, he moves right toward claims that are factually false and utterly horrific.
Let’s compare this latest case to its famous precursor, that of Willie Horton. When George H.W. Bush used that story to turn voters against Michael Dukakis in 1988, he would tell the lurid tale and then conclude, in the politician’s common idiom, that it raised serious questions about Dukakis’ judgment. Since it wasn’t as though prison furlough policy was going to be a serious issue for the president to address, Bush at least maintained some plausible deniability by allowing the audience to make the most racist conclusions themselves. He didn’t have to say out loud what he wanted voters to believe, because they’d do it all on their own.
Had Donald Trump been the Republican nominee that year, he would literally have said, “Michael Dukakis wants scary black men to kill you and rape your wife.”
We all know he would, just as he now says, “A vote for Democrats is a vote to liquidate America’s borders and it’s a vote to let fentanyl, heroin and other deadly drugs pour across our borders,” and claims ludicrously about a deranged killer who was deported once under Bill Clinton and once under George W. Bush that “Democrats let him in. Democrats let him stay.”
But please, let’s not get ourselves into a debate about whether Trump is “really” a racist in his heart. I happen to think the evidence on that score is at this point beyond dispute, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters are the things he says and does: the way he encourages his supporters to nurture their own racism, the way he promotes resentment and division at every opportunity, the way he absolutely, positively believes that hate is what got him to the White House and hate his what will keep him there.
Trump is the most racist president in modern history, not because of what is or isn't in his heart but because of the despicable way he has acted. There is little doubt that there is no depth to which he will not sink. Seriously: Try to come up with the most horrific dirty campaign trick or piece of demagoguery you can think of, then ask yourself: Would Trump do this if he thought it would help him win the next election, or would his ethical compass prevent him? The answer will always be: Yes, he would do that. He would lie, he would cheat, he would steal, he would promote racism and misogyny and anti-Semitism and xenophobia and every other hatred imaginable if he thought it would get a few more of his supporters to the polls.
We know he would because he has already done all those things. And he’s not finished yet.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog. @paulwaldman1