John Cassidy’s “A Racist in the Oval Office,” in The New Yorker, revisits the long history of Donald Trump’s racist statements. He cites one awful example recounted by “veteran casino executive” John R. O’Donnell, recorded in the 1991 book Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump,* which details Trump’s disastrous oversight of the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City. O’Donnell was working for Trump and his boss started sounding off about “an employee in the Plaza’s finance department who happened to be African-American.”
This is from the book:
“Yeah, I never liked the guy. I don’t think he knows what the fuck he’s doing. My accountants in New York are always complaining about him. He’s not responsive. And it isn’t funny. I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. But Donald went on, “Besides that, I’ve got to tell you something else. I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is. I believe that. It’s not anything they can control. . . . Don’t you agree?” He looked at me straight in the eye and waited for my reply.
O’Donnell’s reply wasn’t inaccurate, but it was woefully incomplete:
“Donald, you really shouldn’t say things like that to me or anybody else,” I said. “That is not the kind of image you want to project. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation, even if it’s the way you feel.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “If anybody ever heard me say that … holy shit … I’d be in a lot of trouble. But I have to tell you, that’s the way I feel.”
One cheer for O’Donnell for not silently embracing Trump’s rant, a la Billy Bush, but his response focusing on the shallow, surface-level concern of “the kind of image you want to project” is still light-years from what needed to be said. The problem with Trump’s “laziness is a trait in blacks” statement isn’t simply that it projects a poor image or that it might get him “in a lot of trouble.”
The problem is that it’s a lie. It’s not true.
Believing such lies doesn’t only make Trump racist, it makes him stupid — it makes him more ignorant, more irrational, more detached from reality.
At some level, Trump seems to know that “the way I feel” isn’t true or good or real. This is why, like everyone trying to live within a lie they partly recognize is unreal, he seeks support and confirmation from others. This is why it was so important for him to say, “Don’t you agree?” The unreality of the lie can appear more real-ish to him if he can persuade others to join him in the fantasy of it.
This question is always present, although usually unspoken, whenever bigoted lies are expressed. It’s the question silently accompanying every racist, misogynist, or homophobic “joke,” every disparaging generalization. This is the constant, perpetual question exchanged among bigots: Don’t you agree?
Agreement, here, entails not just sharing the sentiment, but endorsing the underlying notion that such sentiments can — if broadly shared — come to outweigh reality itself. If we agree, then our opinions can outvote the truth. We can join together in the pretense of a world shaped by our preferences, rather than the world as it is.
Agreement, in other words, entails self-deception in the third person.
This desperately sought agreement will serve to reaffirm and to strengthen the speaker’s commitment to the lie, but denying them such agreement — confronting them with firm, substantial disagreement — will have the opposite effect.
This isn’t a magic remedy for bigotry — a single such instance of disagreement won’t sweep away the years of training and practice that this person has devoted themselves to in order to achieve their status as a reality-defying bigot. Challenging them by refusing them the agreement they seek won’t, by itself, change their minds. But it will support the part of their mind that knows, or at least strongly suspects, that the lie is a lie. And that means their ongoing self-deception is going to be more difficult, more taxing, and harder to sustain.
O’Donnell’s image-focused disagreement can’t be effective in this way. It allowed Trump to walk away hearing only that he should be more careful not to say such things around the “wrong” people, and thus letting him reclassify the problem as having to do with what he can say out loud in particular settings, rather than having to do with his rejection of reality.
For disagreement to register, it needs to focus on the substance of the false claim. Not “you really shouldn’t say things like that” but as plainly as possible, “That is not true. Your opinion does not correspond with objective reality.”
That last sentence doesn’t sound like typical human speech, but I’ve found that to be effective. The more Vulcan and Spock-like you’re able to be in expressing this disagreement, the more unsettling it tends to be. They want to engage on a purely emotional level. “Don’t you agree?” is, in part, an invitation to elevate their emotional preference over the cold logic and cold facts of the matter. The chillier you can make it, the more chilling it will be.
But then again, I’ve often failed to keep my cool in denying such agreement, and I think a more heated response can work too.
In any case, if you’re white, or male, or straight, then you’re familiar with the kind of situation John R. O’Donnell describes. This is how (some) white people often talk to other white people about non-white people when they’re sure no one else can hear them. And it’s how (some) men talk to other men about women in the absence of women (“locker-room” talk). And how (some) straight folks talk to other straight folks about everybody else when they’re not around.
And it always, always, always ends with this question: Don’t you agree? It always seeks and desires and needs the confirmation of this agreement.
It doesn’t matter if the question has been asked explicitly or implicitly, it requires an explicit response. If you don’t very clearly say “No. No I do not agree because it is not true,” then whatever else you may say or do will be taken as agreement and encouragement. Your voice and your power — however much or however little you may have — will be conscripted in service of that agreement and in service of the lie it prefers to reality.
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* Trump’s devoted defenders reject this book as nothing more than a politically motivated political hit-piece by their savior’s political enemies. This is the Roy Moore Time Traveler Defense — requiring us to believe that Trump’s political enemies somehow knew, back in 1991, that 27 years in the future this man would be their political opponent, so they had the extreme foresight to see the ground decades in advance with smears meant to discredit him.
The truth, of course, is that this 1991 book had nothing at all to do with 21st-century politics and nothing at all to do with the Republican Party now remade in the image of Trump and the tea party and their enablers. At the time it was written, this book had no intention or expectation of ever having anything at all to do with presidential politics. It was simply the profile of a horrifying human being — a reckless, destructive, selfish man who enriched himself by plundering Atlantic City. The notion that this man — a boorish asshole near the top of everyone’s list of Worst People Alive in 1991 — might ever be president was as incomprehensible to the authors and publishers of this book back then as it still is to most of us now.