Steve Bannon, the Trump administration’s most prominent white nationalist figurehead, is no longer operating from within the inner sanctum of the White House. But his dismissal seems to have had little effect on President Donald Trump’s penchant for spewing coded, racist messages to rally faithful supporters to his side.
In the aftermath of a deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump’s stunning failure to condemn white nationalists was met with an avalanche of criticism. Bannon was dismissed and reestablished at the helm of Breitbart News — now a self-sworn enemy of his former White House rivals, delightfully lobbing grenades into the Oval Office.
So how does Trump respond to an erstwhile aide, one who arguably earned his successful presidential campaign’s MVP award? You might imagine the president with tissue-thin skin might run in the opposite direction of his turncoat critic, right? Not at all. In Tuesday night’s bizarre, rambling, rant-of-a-speech in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump dug in and stoked the fears that “our history” and “our culture” (read: white history and white culture) were somehow threatened by the removal of Confederate statues.
Trump vented for an hour and a quarter. He lied to a cheering audience. He boasted about his wealth and smarts. He attacked his enemies in the media, in Congress, and in the streets protesting outside the convention center.
A series of especially acute moments in a speech filled with low points involved Trump addressing the widespread criticism he received for vacillating on the racial upheaval in Charlottesville and the national controversy over removing Confederate monuments. Trump argued passionately and unpersuasively that the media was unjustly misrepresenting what he had said and done.
“I mean truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories,” Trump said. “They don’t report the facts. Just like they don’t want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred, bigotry, and violence and strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, and the KKK.”
The crowd roared with approval. Then a bit later, he spoke of the monuments to the nation’s traitorous past.
“They’re trying to take away our culture,” he said to an audience in a state that wasn’t part of the Union during the Civil War. “They are trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders, they do it overnight. These things have been there for 150 years, for 100 years. You go back to a university, and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”
It’s easy to debunk what Trump said. Historians are in clear and uniform agreement that the majority of Confederate monuments were erected to enshrine white supremacy, not to honor losing-side Civil War combatants.
The Southern Poverty Law Center studied the monuments and cataloged more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces, largely in the Dixie states. The group found that there were “two major periods in which the dedication of Confederate monuments and other symbols spiked — the first two decades of the 20th century and during the civil rights movement.” Those two periods overlapped with moments in U.S. history when African Americans saw significant social gains in the country.
Debunking Trump’s ranting is a nihilistic exercise. The only facts he — and his sycophantic supporters — recognize are those of his own making. Everything else is “fake news.”
Trump’s dishonest and self-aggrandizing speech bore a remarkable resemblance to something awful and familiar: Bannon-directed campaign rallies from last year. Bannon is widely credited with fine-tuning Trump’s presidential campaign message so that it resonated with white, racist voters in such a way that other, seemingly less- or non-racist voters might pretend the candidate’s vile utterances were nothing more than political rhetoric.
Dog whistle politics, it’s called.
It’s been a staple of Trumpism for decades. As Peter Beinart notes recently in The Atlantic, Trump exploited bigotry long before he met or hired Bannon.
In 1973, at the age of 27, Donald Trump—then President of Trump Management—was sued along with his father for discrimination against African Americans by the Justice Department. In 1989, when four African American and one Hispanic teenagers (the “Central Park Five”) were arrested for rape, Trump took out newspaper ads declaring that the accused should be executed and “forced to suffer.” When DNA evidence exonerated the young men in 2012, Trump denounced New York City’s decision to compensate them,…
Steve Bannon was not advising Donald Trump when Trump demanded to see Barack Obama’s college transcripts and launched a crusade to prove that he was not an American citizen. Bannon was not advising Trump in 2013, when the real estate tycoon tweeted that, “I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz—I mean Jon Stewart” or told Republican Jews that, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”
So tell me the truth: Did anyone really think that jettisoning Bannon from the inner sanctum of the White House would temper Trump’s impulse to blow into that dog whistle again and again?
No, of course, you didn’t.