If you're a white person who angers Donald Trump, you never know what particular insult he'll choose to lob at you. He might call you little, or crooked, or ugly, or something else, utilizing all the insight available to your average elementary school bully. But if you're black, chances are he's going to call you stupid.
In his many recent campaign-style rallies, Trump's extended stream-of-consciousness rants are sure to include a section going after Representative Maxine Waters, who, like hundreds of other elected Democrats, has been highly critical of the president. When he criticizes Waters, he inevitably calls her a "low IQ person." And then there's this:
Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2018
The interview in question was occasioned by the opening of a public elementary school James just built in his hometown of Akron to serve at-risk youth, the kind of creative philanthropy that would never occur to Trump, whose "foundation" seems to have been devoted mostly to things like paying off his creditors and decorating his golf clubs. But James—who, by the way, has a photographic memory, something we don't ordinarily associate with people of low intelligence—was also critical of the way Trump has used sports, particularly criticism of black athletes, to sow divisions that he can then benefit from politically.
So why would Trump react to that criticism by calling James stupid, and Lemon to boot? It's a real head-scratcher.
The obvious answer is that the president of the United States is simply a racist. I realize that these days liberals are supposed to be be cautious about throwing around that accusation, lest conservatives be offended and wind up voting for Republicans. And such a serious charge should be wielded with care, especially since much of the time what we really want to argue is that something someone said or did was racist, and whether they are personally a racist is both beside the point and difficult if not impossible to know for certain.
But after watching Trump for all this time, there's no reason to beat around the bush on this question anymore. Donald Trump is a racist, and we all know it. He could barely have tried any harder to convince us. Not only did he turn himself into a political figure by making himself America's most prominent birther, he repeatedly demanded to see Barack Obama's high school and college transcripts, on the theory that Obama couldn't possibly have been smart enough to get into Columbia and Harvard Law School on his own merit. He ran a white nationalist campaign for president, and said that the judge in his Trump University fraud cause couldn't be fair because "He's a Mexican" (in fact, the judge is an American). On multiple occasions he retweeted racist memes from white supremacists. In a White House meeting about immigration, he said that Haitian immigrants "all have AIDS" and complained that once Nigerian immigrants had seen the United States they would never "go back to their huts" (Nigerian immigrants are one of the most highly educated groups in America). He meets a group of Native American war heroes, and decides to bring up the fact that he insults Elizabeth Warren by calling her "Pocahontas." And of course, he called non-white nations "shithole countries" and averred that a group of neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis were "very fine people."
So we know who Donald Trump is, and why he says what he does. The fact that much of what Trump says about African Americans is performative—a public show meant to keep his base angry—doesn't mean that the bigotry isn't sincerely felt.
This is a good reminder that Trump's 2020 campaign will be no less built on hate than his 2016 campaign was. In fact, it could be even more so. Trump will no longer be able to plausibly argue that there's a system controlled by an elite that's keeping regular people down, since he and his party are the ones with all the power. So it's likely that he'll rely even more heavily on white nationalism to get re-elected.
There's ample precedent for it. In 2004, with the Iraq War increasingly unpopular and having passed tax cuts for the wealthy that somehow failed to turn America into a paradise of limitless prosperity (sound familiar?), George W. Bush turned to the specter of same-sex marriage, the most divisive social issue of the moment, to bring him to victory. Republicans put anti-gay initiatives on the ballot in eleven states; all of them passed, and combined with an uncommonly vicious campaign of character assassination against the Democratic nominee, Bush won re-election. What's more divisive today than race?
There will certainly be Republicans telling Trump that he should dial back the hate, whether he's directing it at African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, or anyone else. They'll say that while white nationalism may have worked in the extraordinary set of circumstances that was the 2016 campaign, it's unlikely to work again. But chances are that Trump will dismiss them with a wave of his hand. The man who has spent most of his presidency thinking only of his rabid base, and who quickly schedules a rally before the mob whenever he's feeling beleaguered in Washington, will be sure that they provide his only path to victory and must be fed the fuel their anger demands. He'll be convinced it's the best strategy. And more than that, it's who he is.