A Racist Stuck in the Past

In Trump’s mind, it’s still 1989.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Yes, Donald Trump is a vile racist. He regularly uses dehumanizing language about nonwhites, including members of Congress. And while some argue that this is a cynical strategy designed to turn out Trump’s base, it is at most a strategy that builds on Trump’s pre-existing bigotry. He would be saying these things regardless (and was saying such things long before he ran for president); his team is simply trying to turn bigoted lemons into political lemonade.

What I haven’t seen pointed out much, however, is that Trump’s racism rests on a vision of America that is decades out of date. In his mind it’s always 1989. And that’s not an accident: The ways America has changed over the past three decades, both good and bad, are utterly inconsistent with Trump-style racism.

Why 1989? That was the year he demanded bringing back the death penalty in response to the case of the Central Park Five, black and Latino teenagers convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park. They were, in fact, innocent; their convictions were vacated in 2002. Trump, nevertheless, has refused to apologize or admit that he was wrong.

His behavior then and later was vicious, and it is no excuse to acknowledge that at the time America was suffering from a crime wave. Still, there was indeed such a wave, and it was fairly common to talk about social collapse in inner-city urban communities.

But Trump doesn’t seem to be aware that times have changed. His vision of “American carnage” is one of a nation whose principal social problem is inner-city violence, perpetrated by nonwhites. That’s a comfortable vision if you’re a racist who considers nonwhites inferior. But it’s completely wrong as a picture of America today.

For one thing, violent crime has fallen drastically since the early 1990s, especially in big cities. Our cities certainly aren’t perfectly safe, and some cities — like Baltimore — haven’t shared in the progress. But the social state of urban America is vastly better than it was.

On the other hand, the social state of rural America — white rural America — is deteriorating. To the extent that there really is such a thing as American carnage — and we are in fact seeing rising age-adjusted mortality and declining life expectancy — it’s concentrated among less-educated whites, especially in rural areas, who are suffering from a surge in “deaths of despair” from opioids, suicide and alcohol that has pushed their mortality rates above those of African-Americans.

And indicators of social collapse, like the percentage of prime-age men not working, have also surged in the small town and rural areas of the “eastern heartland,” with its mostly white population.

What this says to me is that the racists, and even those who claimed that there was some peculiar problem with black culture, were wrong, and the sociologist William Julius Wilson was right.

When social collapse seemed to be basically a problem for inner-city blacks, it was possible to argue that its roots lay in some unique cultural dysfunction, and quite a few commentators hinted — or in some cases declared openly — that there was something about being nonwhite that predisposed people toward antisocial behavior.

What Wilson argued, however, was that social dysfunction was an effect, not a cause. His work, culminating in the justly celebrated book “When Work Disappears,” made the case that declining job opportunities for urban workers, rather than some underlying cultural or racial disposition, explained the decline in prime-age employment, the decline of the traditional family, and more.

How might one test Wilson’s hypothesis? Well, you could destroy job opportunities for a number of white people, and see if they experienced a decline in propensity to work, stopped forming stable families, and so on. And sure enough, that’s exactly what has happened to parts of nonmetropolitan America effectively stranded by a changing economy.

I’m not saying that there’s something wrong or inferior about the inhabitants of, say, eastern Kentucky (and no American politician would dare suggest such a thing). On the contrary: What the changing face of American social problems shows is that people are pretty much the same, whatever the color of their skin. Give them reasonable opportunities for economic and personal advancement, and they will thrive; deprive them of those opportunities, and they won’t.

Which brings us back to Trump and his attack on Representative Elijah Cummings, whom he accused of representing a district that is a “mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Actually, part of the district is quite affluent and well educated, and in any case, Trump is debasing his office by, in effect, asserting that some Americans don’t deserve political representation.

But the real irony is that if you ask which congressional districts really are “messes” in the sense of suffering from severe social problems, many — probably most — strongly supported Trump in 2016. And Trump is, of course, doing nothing to help those districts. All he has to offer is hate.

The Central Park Five: ‘We Were Just Baby Boys’

In 1989 the men — then teenagers — were arrested in connection with the rape and assault of a white female jogger, and eventually convicted in a case that came to symbolize the stark injustices black and brown people experience within the legal system and in media coverage. They were convicted based partly on police-coerced confessions, and each spent between six and 13-plus years in prison for charges including attempted murder, rape and assault.

The men maintained their innocence throughout the case, trial and prison terms, and all were exonerated after Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to the crime in 2002. In 2014, they were awarded a $41 million settlement, though the City of New York denied any wrongdoing.

.. In 2015, he tweeted the idea of a Central Park Five drama to DuVernay, who messaged him back with interest.

SANTANA Ava was always my choice to do this series. I never met the woman, I didn’t even know who she was, but I’d watched “Selma” — there’s a part where [Martin Luther King, Jr.] is confronted by [his wife] Coretta with recordings [of him with another woman], and I felt like that was bold to put in the film. By showing that, it showed the human side of this man who was put on a pedestal. And it told me that she had no fear of telling the truth.

One of my biggest fears as a person of color in this city, in this country is what happened to these men. There’s nothing more terrifying than telling your truth and telling it over and over and over again, but having people refuse to honor it as the truth.

Boys Will Be Supreme Court Justices

Kavanaugh’s accuser is credible. Will it matter?

.. Speaking to The Washington Post, she produced notes from a therapist she saw in 2012, whom she’d told about being attacked by students “from an elitist boys’ school” who grew up to become “high-ranking members of society in Washington.” According to her husband, that year she identified Kavanaugh to him by name. When Kavanaugh appeared on a shortlist of potential Supreme Court picks — but before his nomination had been announced — Blasey contacted both The Post and her member of Congress, Anna G. Eshoo of California. By all indications, she wanted to head his nomination off without being forced into the spotlight.

.. Blasey passed a polygraph administered by a former F.B.I. agent. The utility of polygraphs is dubious, but her willingness to take one is evidence of her sincerity. According to Axios, some Republicans wanted to call on Blasey to testify publicly, assuming she’d decline.

.. Judge, who wrote a memoir of his teenage alcoholism, has veered between denying the incident and saying he doesn’t recall it.

.. it’s a sign of how credible Blasey seems that, since this story broke, much of the public debate has been less about whether her accusations are true than whether they are relevant.

.. Ari Fleischer pondered the weight of high school misbehavior. “Should that deny us chances later in life?” he asked. “Even for Supreme Court job, a presidency of the United States, or you name it?”

.. Such arguments would be more convincing if people on the right weren’t so selective in their indulgence. Donald Trump called for the death penalty for the Central Park 5, who were 14 to 16 years old when they were arrested. (They’ve since been proven innocent.) Children are regularly put on sex offender registries, sometimes for their entire lives, for conduct less serious than what Kavanaugh is accused of.

In a sour irony, some legal experts think Kavanaugh’s confirmation could imperil Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 decision banning life sentences without parole for most teenage convicts.

We need to determine, as best we can, if he’s lying now.

.. Senators should also demand that Kavanaugh’s old friend Judge, who grew up to become a right-wing writer, testify, though Kavanaugh would surely prefer other character witnesses.

(“Oh for the days when President George W. Bush gave his wife, Laura, a loving but firm pat on the backside in public,” Judge once wrote. “The man knew who was boss.”)

.. There is a small, dark part of me that thinks it would be fitting if Republicans shove Kavanaugh through despite the allegations against him. Anyone Trump nominates is going to threaten Roe v. Wade. Kavanaugh would at least make plain the power dynamics behind forced pregnancy. We would lose Roe because

  • a president who boasted of sexual assault,
  • elected against the wishes of the majority of female voters,
  • was able to give a lifetime Supreme Court appointment to an ex-frat boy credibly accused of attempted rape.

.. Kavanaugh, helped by an all-male Republican caucus on the Judiciary Committee, would join Clarence Thomas, whose confirmation hearing helped make the phrase “sexual harassment” a household term.

They and three other men would likely vote against the court’s three women.

The brute imposition of patriarchy would be undeniable.

.. “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.” If the Kavanaugh nomination goes forward, it’s because Trump and his allies believe that a certain class of men accused of sexual assault deserve impunity.

The Lesson of Omarosa’s New Trump Book

Omarosa Manigault’s forthcoming memoir and her allegations that Trump is a racist who habitually tosses around anti-black epithets. The Guardian reported that Manigault, in her book, says that she looked into rumors that there were tapes of “Apprentice” outtakes that allegedly include Trump using the word “nigger” and that, although she never tracked them down, she became convinced that they existed.

.. a contract proffered by Lara Trump for a fifteen-thousand-dollar monthly payment that Manigault believed amounted to hush money.

.. a period of gradual awakening to Trump’s bigoted outlook. Even after leaving the Administration, she offered the nonsensical hedge that Trump is “racial” but not racist—a position that is roughly equivalent to being human but not Homo sapiens.

.. Her realization about Trump’s outlook appears to have emerged at some point during her book deal. That’s not a gradual awakening, it’s a glacial, self-interested one.

.. His personal history yields an impressive greatest-hits collection that would include him

  • beginning his Presidential campaign by conflating Mexicans with rapists and later stating that
  • Judge Gonzalo Curiel should not preside over the Trump University fraud suit because of his Hispanic heritage. Trump
  • asked a friend of Karen McDougal, the former Playmate with whom Trump had an extramarital affair, if she liked “big black dick.” There is also, of course, the matter of
  • the Justice Department accusing the Trump family firm of discriminating against African-American renters in the seventies (Trump settled the suit without admitting guilt),
  • his racist public assault on the Central Park Five, and
  • his use of birtherism to propel himself into national politics. In a more recent spree,
  • he questioned the intelligence of Representative Maxine Waters, LeBron James, and the CNN host Don Lemon—each of whom is black—and (again) assailed African-American football players.

In matters of

  • race, as well as
  • competence,
  • decency,
  • character, and
  • fitness,

the public either already knows what it needs to know or intractably believes what it wishes to believe. Omarosa Manigault’s book is unlikely to change the balance of either.