Reading the Tea Leaves: President Trump

This post began its life as a partial rebuttal to Scott Alexander’s 8000-word plea, You Are Still Crying Wolf. In it, Alexander shows that Donald Trump has a history of saying empty platitudes about all sorts of people he is assumed to be against and therefore concludes that he is not, by any stretch, either unusually or overtly racist. While I still disagree, as I got further into my rebuttal, several news stories broke that made me rethink the details of my position. I still think Alexander is being too anodyne, but I realized that Donald Trump isn’t the kind of overt racist I feared he was.

He’s a rich, Northeast racist.

First of all—and I have some developments that have happened since Alexander published to draw on—he is up to his elbows with racists of various stripes. The worst we’ve seen at publication of this article is Jeff Sessions. You absolutely get to judge people by the company they keep, and much more so when they are hiring for government posts. While Alexander can be excused for not noticing Jeff Sessions would be appointed in the future, Trump has been hiring overt racists for 16 months. So while he says some platitudes about wanting to help gay folks, he also has rabidly anti-gay Mike Pence as his VP pick.

Another development this week was around the Muslim registry. Let’s give all people involved in this catastrophe a fair shake. No one was proposing either registering Muslim citizens or rounding up Muslims for another round of internment. Members of the Trump Transition Team were working on a registry for Muslim immigrants, which is plenty bad. However, one of them, Carl Higbie, said that we could do this because of the Korematsu case and caused a bunch of people, not least of whom was Megyn Kelly, to say, “Kill it fire”.

The guy maybe behind all this, Kris Kobach, was…disappeared? from the Trump transition team. He had been apparently working for them all week and then the Trump team said that, actually, he never was. In case you think that might be true, they also said Trump never supported the registry, which is simply a lie. He had been for this a year ago. Here’s Rachel Maddow being just as floored as I am about this:

Now Bannon is saying it nothing is off the table. To review, Trump said he was for extreme vetting, someone he hired said they were working on it, they fired the guy and said no one ever was for it, and now they are saying it is on the table. I agree with Alexander to a point: Trump is only covertly racist insofar as he keeps changing his mind.

If you are a person of color, a queer person, or a woman and you have ever dealt with the insidious racism, homophobia, or sexism of the Northeast, this is going to feel awfully familiar. Donald Trump has no problem being openly racist, homophobic, or sexist when he feels safe. But as soon as that threatens his social standing, he distances himself. I refuse to have the semantic argument about whether or not that counts as “overt”, but it is familiar and blatant to a lot of people in the country. Trump is as publicly prejudiced as he thinks his reputation can bear—and that varies week to week.

There is a silver lining in all this. It suggests that an engaged public can sway him, making it all the more vital that we oppose decisions like appointing Jeff Sessions. It means that real world protests, letters, and (yes) social media posts are going to have more of an impact on President Trump than they did on, say, Governor Pence. Trump, like many racists in the Northeast, cares that his neighbors don’t think of him as some Jeff Sessions-esque troll who thought the KKK was pretty swell apart from using weed. (Seriously, what was up with that?)

This last week suggests that Donald Trump is more vain than racist, and he is plenty of the latter. There is a winning strategy in that.


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