One of the great annoyances of the 2000s was how Democratic officeholders and media personalities constantly obliged conservatives to defend
George W. Bush
when we weren’t inclined to. It felt churlish to criticize a man for signing a terrible budget deal when his enemies were accusing him of invading a foreign country to line the pockets of his friends in the oil industry.
Here we are again, only it’s much worse this time. You want to fulminate against
for his cruel tweets and childish behavior or his madcap non-policies on trade and North Korea. But then the president’s meanest adversaries on the left will level a charge so dishonorable, so wantonly unfair, that you feel almost bound to defend him.
The most common of these charges is that Mr. Trump is a racist. And lately, the charge having failed to stick the way his despisers thought it would, the charge has been intensified to “white supremacist.”
The idea of describing Mr. Trump with any word ending in “ist” has always struck me as risible. The suffix connotes the conscious holding of a principle or doctrine, whether good or evil—socialist, Dadaist, impressionist, Platonist, meliorist. But Mr. Trump doesn’t do principles and doctrines. The only “ist” word that can tenably describe him is “nationalist,” and that fits loosely and only sometimes. A racist or a white supremacist must at some level consciously hold definably racist or white supremacist beliefs; otherwise the terms are useless. Mr. Trump may have a neurosis that makes it impossible for him to abide by social conventions, but that does not make him a racist. His attention span is too short, his eye too firmly fixed on momentary advantage, to adopt a creed more complex than “Make America great again.”
Yet Mr. Trump’s fiercest adversaries couldn’t be more certain that he is a racist. They parse his tweets and his spoken words and quote them to each other in versions deliberately stripped of context. They speak of “dog whistles” and “code language,” as if he were capable of verbal subtlety. They accuse him of saying what he hasn’t said: I wonder how many commentators on CNN and MSNBC have stated, as if reporting fact, that Mr. Trump thinks Mexicans are rapists and neo-Nazis “good people”? If he were an actual racist or white supremacist, Mr. Trump’s verbal incontinence would have made this fully apparent by now. There would be no need to debate the question.
But it is fully apparent now, I hear the president’s adversaries say. It’s all out there in the open! He’s saying it! Can’t you hear?
If you’ve ever had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist, you know this is what it’s like. Evidence that the theorist’s claim is unproven or false becomes evidence that it’s true. Countervailing logic only reinforces his certainty.
How strange, then, that many of Mr. Trump’s angriest detractors have begun to sound like adherents of the conspiracy theory he helped to propagate: birtherism. That is the claim, quietly peddled by
’s allies in 2007-08 and loudly promoted by Mr. Trump in the years after, that
wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore couldn’t legally be president.
Birtherism was the complaint of cranks from the beginning, and it should have died in April 2011, when, in response to Mr. Trump’s taunting, President Obama obtained and released a copy of his original birth certificate from the archives, which proved he was born in Honolulu.
The theory lived on for several more years, but not because there was evidence for it. Empirical evidence was never birtherism’s appeal. What made it attractive, what made it so hard for its exponents to relinquish it, was their hatred of Barack Obama. His fans often claimed such hatred was motivated by racism, but every recent president has been hated by large numbers of people.
Birtherism and the insistence that Mr. Trump is a racist are very different sorts of crotchets. But they have one thing in common. Devotees of both fully believe that once the truth is acknowledged, everything must change: The objects of their hatred will have to go away and never return. Hence the birthers’ preposterous theories about how Mr. Obama’s birth certificate was forged.
Mr. Trump’s accusers similarly appear to believe that once his racism is finally, irrefutably proven, he and his administration will be canceled, banished. Hence their obsessive need to believe that although he didn’t actually refer to race in this tweet or that remark, that’s what he meant. When you put it all together, it’s racism! That means he’s finished, never president in the first place.
Credit birthers with this much: Article II, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution does require that the president be a natural born citizen. There is no provision in the Constitution barring “racists,” real or alleged, from serving in any office. One of these theories is adopted mainly by Joe Blows who’ve spent too much time online, the other by educated metropolitans and media elites. I’m not sure which is crazier.
Mr. Swaim is an editorial page writer for the Journal.
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