By Timothy L. O’Brien
Donald Trump, the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons once told me, is “the official bling-bling white man.”
Simmons, a frequent guest at Mar-a-Lago, was explaining to me more than a decade ago why Trump had gained widespread acclaim among rappers. In short, Simmons said, Trump was extravagant, obsessed with public displays of his wealth and loving every minute of it. Rappers saw Trump as a role model, and as someone who was inclusive. “A lot of rich white guys want to thumb their noses at you and have their cake,” Simmons said. “That’s not Donald.”
Simmons and Trump aren’t pals anymore.
Simmons now describes the president as the “epitome” of “white supremacy.” Shortly after Trump was elected last year, Simmons published a letter asking him to reconsider some of his campaign themes. “The far right wing and the alt-right were your most staunch supporters, but those people are not your friends and you know that,” Simmons wrote. “You must stop with the hateful and harmful language towards women and people of color.”
Trump hasn’t taken Simmons’s advice. He has never really distanced himself from the white nationalists who have been among his most visible backers since he announced his presidential bid two years ago. And this past weekend, he reached a new low when he failed to clearly condemn the avowed racists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The rally turned violent, a woman was killed by an alleged white nationalist and Trump equivocated. “Many sides” were to blame for the tragedy, he said in a televised statement on Saturday.
After then being pilloried by activists, politicians from both parties, the media, and on and on, Trump — who typically seizes any opportunity to opine publicly about the news of the day — couldn’t come up with anything much better than that initial statement. He took to Twitter to express his disappointment (“but Charlottesville sad!” he offered) and then his daughter Ivanka entered the fray to say what her father apparently wasn’t willing to: “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”
The White House also sought to mollify the president’s critics, issuing a statement on Sunday condemning “white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups” for the violence. Better, maybe. Clearer, certainly. But that’s still very weak brew amid a national tragedy.
I don’t think Trump is failing to rise to the majesty and demands of the office he now holds because he’s uncertain about how to respond to Charlottesville, or simply because he’s pandering to a vocal and vicious segment of his political base.
I suspect, rather, that the president isn’t being clear and forceful about Charlottesville because he has a long history as a race-baiter himself — and to overtly condemn others for the same is beyond him.
Remember, our president is the same man who took out full-page newspaper ads in 1989 condemning black and Latino teenagers accused of assaulting a white jogger in Central Park. Trump had no need to insert himself in that event, other than to stir up the racial animosities brewing around it and then to exploit them for his own publicity. Even after the teenagers were fully exonerated, including by DNA evidence proving they weren’t the assailants, Trump continued to insist on their guilt as recently as last year.
Our president is the same man who embraced birtherism as a way to hound Barack Obama during his presidency, an effort that also kept Trump in the public eye. He’s the same man who attacked a federal judge overseeing fraud litigation involving Trump University by highlighting his Mexican heritage. He’s the same man who ran a housing and real-estate business with his father that was investigated and sanctioned by the Justice Department in the 1970s for discriminatingagainst prospective tenants of color. He’s the same man who brought Steve Bannon, the former boss of Breitbart, the white-nationalist tribune, into the White House.
Trump is the same man who refused to explicitly condemn former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke last year. “I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists,” Trump told CNN at the time.
Duke himself knows better. He joined the Charlottesville rally over the weekend, telling NBC that he attended because he saw the event as a “turning point” for white nationalists seeking to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
David Duke is right. And Russell Simmons is right. The president has long consorted freely with bigotry, dignifying and empowering the racism that’s now unspooling onto our streets.