Donald Trump did his best to distract national focus from the impending damage of congressional testimony by Robert Mueller, who, when asked Wednesday if his report exonerated the president from obstruction of justice, answered an emphatic “No.” And distract he did, in a series of racially based screeds that left most thinking Americans aghast, while providing cover for racist elements of his base and invigorating white nationalists.

Trump’s response to questions regarding the “Send her back” chant by his North Carolina rally crowd last week: “I didn’t say it, they did,” squelched any notions that he might, for once, take responsibility for something ... anything ... that he’s said or done. But from all reports, his myopic supporters have zero qualms about being thrown under the bus — his popularity among Republicans actually went up five points — so the likelihood of him manning up any time soon is virtually impossible to imagine.

Let’s just, for the sake of argument, this one time, let’s take Trump at his word. He’s proclaimed on more than one occasion that he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.” So, assuming the president of the United States — despite all evidence to the contrary — is not a racist, indeed gets along really well with “the blacks,” as he’s also claimed, then what should we make of the blatantly racist theme of his White House tenure thus far? Why would anyone — never mind the president — resurrect ancient tropes that represent some of the worst divisions our culture has ever seen? “Love it or Leave it” ... “My Country right or wrong.”

Although his remarks pertaining to four democratic women of color are what kicked off the current debate, the president has a curious track record in dealing with African Americans that goes back to his days as a New York real estate developer, in business with his father, Fred Trump. In 1973 a federal racial discrimination suit was brought against Trump’s company for “redlining”: telling black applicants there were no vacancies while readily offering the same units to white renters. As part of the settlement, the Trumps were required to place ads in New York newspapers saying they welcomed black applicants.

Ever-pugnacious, Trump counter sued the government for $100 million, represented by Roy Cohn, whose infamous career included serving as Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the senator’s investigation of alleged communists in congress, among others. The suit was thrown out but Cohn went on to mentor the future president, providing assistance with shady deals, tax abatements and zoning issues, while threatening anyone perceived to impede the completion of projects. During a coffee break from giving his own deposition, it was alleged Trump said “You don’t want to live with them either” to one of the lawyers in the room.

Later, in 1989, Trump took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers demanding that the group of black and latino teenagers accused and later exonerated for the rape of a woman in Central Park be “forced to suffer” and be put to death. After DNA evidence implicated another individual who later confessed; even after the teens’ convictions were vacated; and even after they were awarded a $41 million settlement for malicious prosecution, Trump called the settlement “a disgrace.” Campaigning in 2016, candidate Trump again insisted on the Central Park five’s guilt.

Since his inauguration in 2017, Trump marked what former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called a “turning point” after a white nationalist-Neo Nazi rally in Charlottesville Virginia that degenerated into violence, prompting the president’s saying that there were good people “on both sides.” Richard Spencer, a white nationalist leader said of the president at that time: “I was proud of him at that moment.” Several days later, after walking back his initial statement, Trump said the “alt left” had been “very, very violent,” remarks welcomed by his white nationalist supporters.

Indeed, even Trump’s initial venture into politics was rooted in bringing racist “birtherism” into the mainstream discussion, primarily on Fox News. Once considered a fringe conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, thereby making his presidency “illegitimate,” birtherism became Trump’s raison d’etre. Even when the former president produced his Hawaiian birth certificate, Trump continued with innuendos suggesting “Some people are saying” the birth certificate itself was a “forgery.”

So, if the man who kicked off his presidential campaign suggesting Mexicans were “rapists”; lied that he saw thousands of Muslims dancing in the streets and cheering on 9/11; who thought Nigerian immigrants should “Go back to their huts”; and referred to African countries as “sh-tholes” isn’t a racist, why do avowed racists seem to love him? Why has there been a dramatic uptick in hate crimes since his election? And why do attendees at his rallies feel perfectly comfortable with racially motivated, patently un-American chanting?

Rep. Ilhan Omar — one of Trump’s targets — wrote in the New York Times that it is insufficient to simply condemn the president’s racism and that we should push back, remaining unequivocal about our values, while confronting racist policies like the caging of immigrant children, Muslim bans, and segregation in public housing. She points out that racial fear prevents us from building community and turns Americans against Americans.

Unfortunately, turning Americans against each other has served this president quite well.

Walt Amses lives in North Calais.

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