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What If It Were Trump in Blackface?

A mental exercise for our times.
February 4, 2019
What If It Were Trump in Blackface?
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Virginia  Governor Ralph Northam is facing a chorus of demands from his fellow Democrats to resign; pressure that has only intensified since his epically inept press conference over the weekend at which he (1) walked back his admission that he had appeared in blackface in a medical school yearbook photo (2) admitted to wearing blackface to a party where he dressed up as Michael Jackson and (3) had to be stopped by his wife from demonstrating his moonwalking skills. Notably, calls for his defenestration have little or nothing to do with the bollix he made of his position on partial birth abortion just days earlier.

By any conventional measure, Northam is dead man barely walking, as Democrats have drawn a red line; and the Republican cup of schadenfreude runneth over.

All of which tempts me to offer this hypothetical exercise: What if it had been Donald Trump?

Absurd, of course. But bear with me. What if a photo emerged from one of those galas where Rudy Giuliani might have shown up in drag, and Trump had worn blackface?

Would evidence of black-faced Trump appreciably affect his standing in the GOP? Would it have any material effect at all on his prospects for renomination?

As part of this mental exercise, go ahead and make a list of the prominent Republican office holders who would call for his resignation a’la Ralph Northam. Expressions of concern or strongly worded tweets don’t count. How many would call for him to step down from the presidency?

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

This is all speculative, except it’s not wholly speculative, because we’ve really been through this before. Think:  Access Hollywood, Charlottesville, Roy Moore.

It’s interesting (but not that hard) to try to imagine how conservative media would handle the story; the usual sites would raise factual questions about the provenance of the picture; others would denounce critics as politically correct snowflakes and dismiss the story as old news.

The harsher the criticism, the more the right’s defensive instincts would kick in. There would be scattered defenses of blackface as harmless but most conservative media would quickly pivot to accusations of media bias and whataboutism. There would be some obligatory throat-clearing and virtue signaling among Republicans, but the result would be a mass exercise in consciousness lowering. When the initial umbrage and outrage had faded, there would be the usual walk backs and rationalizations and the window of acceptable behavior would be shifted once again.

Last year when there were (so far unfounded) rumors about tapes of Trump using the n-word, Johnathan V. Last explained why we should devoutly hope that no such tapes existed.

Do you think he’d lose support from his base? Do you think he’d pay a price for lying about the tape’s existence? Or for using the N-word? I do not. Everything we know about the president’s base supporters suggests that there is no straw that will break the camel’s back—only goalposts, receding constantly to the horizon.

The worst outcome, he wrote “is the one that requires the least speculation and imagination.”

As things stand right now there are still a handful of norms left in public life. Not saying the N-word is one of them. It would be nice if we could hold on to that norm. If we have a tape of the president of the United States saying it and he suffers no proximate consequences, that norm will be shattered.

Think of it this way: The Access Hollywood tape didn’t break Donald Trump. It broke the Republican Party’s willingness to insist that character matters.

We know that Last is right because we’ve not only seen this play, we’ve seen its encore, its revivals, and its spinoffs: Trump does something offensive or repulsive, brows are furrowed, tweets launched, but nothing changes.  

In August 2017, a march by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville turned violent, resulting in the murder of a young woman at the hands of a white nationalist. Trump sparked widespread outrage when he initially failed to denounce the white supremacists and then at the press conference where he said, “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

Once again, some Republicans appeared to draw a line.  “This is not a time for vagaries,” Senator Cory Gardner said of Trump’s dog whistle to white nationalists. “This isn’t a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines. This is a time to lay blame … on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred.”

But a year and a half after Charlottesville, Trump continues to enjoy lockstep support among Republicans.

Just last month, Gardner, who faces re-election next year, endorsed Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

Like other pundits, Hugh Hewitt had been willing to criticize Trump’s apparent wink to the neo-Nazis. But in November 2017, Hewitt declared that “there’s no Republican civil war,” except for the “loud, persistent group of Trump critics who apparently never learned the concept of ‘sunk costs’.” Other than “a series of skirmishes on the fringes of the party and among its chattering Manhattan-Beltway class estranged from President Trump,” Hewitt assured readers that everyone else was pretty much all good with what was happening with Trumpism.

He wrote that just three months after Charlottesville.

This was, of course, a reprise of the response to the Access Hollywood video, when Republicans initially fell over themselves abandoning Trump, often using language that could easily be mistaken for moral clarity. On the tape, Trump is heard boasting about his attempts to seduce a married woman and bragging about grabbing women “by the p*ssy,” explaining that “when you are a star you can do anything” to women.

Senator John Thune declared, “Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately.” Senator Thom Tillis declared that “As a proud husband and father of a daughter, I find Donald Trump’s comments indefensible.” Senator John Cornyn said, “I am disgusted by Mr. Trump’s words about women: our daughters, sisters and mothers.” Senator Rob Portman announced that he was dumping Trump and would instead vote for Mike Pence. Senator Cory Gardner declared that “I cannot and will not support someone who brags about assaulting and degrading women,” and called on Trump to drop out of the presidential race.

Two years later, they are all loyal allies and last week Portman joined Gardner in pre-emptively endorsing Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

But few politicians executed more daring moral acrobatics than former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz.

The day after the tape was released, he declared, “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president.” Chaffetz explained that he couldn’t look his 15-year-old daughter in the eye and justify supporting Trump. “It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine,” he said.

The expiration date on his outrage came just 19 days later, when he tweeted out that while he wasn’t defending Trump he would, in fact, vote for him over Hillary Clinton.

Since then Chaffetz has resigned from Congress, moved over to Fox News, and has become a reliable and voluble lickspittle for the president.

When Mitt Romney criticized Trump’s character deficiencies in a Washington Post op ed, Chaffetz rushed onto Fox & Friends to denounce his fellow Utahan for his act of lèse-majesté.  “He hurt the party. I think he also hurt himself,” Chaffetz insisted.

Of course there was also Hugh Hewitt:

This “more and worse oppo,” may have included stories that Trump suppressed by paying off porn stars and Playboy models. But the next year, we find Hewitt explaining at column length “Why Christians will stick with Trump.” He explained: “For many millions of people of faith, Trump is the last line of defense preventing their having to choose between their religious beliefs and full participation in the community and in business.”

And then, there was Roy Moore.

Moore was a moral and political dumpster fire even before allegations that he had molested teenage girls.  A former judge who had been twice removed from the bench for flouting the law, Moore had expressed nostalgia for slavery, suggested that homosexuality should be illegal, that women should not be allowed to run for public office, and that Muslims should not be allowed to serve. He had suggested that some communities in Illinois and Indiana are under Sharia law. (They aren’t.) Moore was also an unrepentant “birther” who had suggested that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were God’s punishment for America’s sins, including “legitimized sodomy.” (Naturally, his candidacy was embraced by Sarah Palin as well as Steve Bannon.)

After multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against Moore, some Republicans attempted to distance themselves from his senate candidacy.  But again, many of them quickly watered down their opposition. “Doubling down on the spinelessness they exhibited during Trump’s candidacy,” wrote Salon, “GOP leaders have since backed off their calls for Moore to drop out of the race.”

The usual suspects in the conservative media quickly came to his defense. “Even if Roy Moore did what he is accused of doing,” a writer at The Federalist declared, “ Alabamans are within their rights to vote for him, and they shouldn’t let Democrats and Never Trumpers shame them into not voting.”

Bannon’s website, Breitbart, went all-in for Moore, launching an ill-fated effort to discredit Moore’s female accusers. There were allegations that two Moore supporters they may have tried to pay $10,000 to a lawyer in return for dropping one of his clients who had made the allegations against Moore, and the supporters wanted the lawyer to issue a statement via Breitbart discrediting the woman.

Breitbart editor Alex Marlow later explained that they backed Moore to protect Trump: “There was no option to throw Judge [Roy] Moore under the bus. If you set the standard that Roy Moore, who was accused of abusing five women . . .  If you make that the standard, the left is going to use it to take out President Trump.”

But the most enthusiastic support for Moore came from Trump himself, who pushed the Republican National Committee into reversing itself and backing the accused pedophile. “We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!” Trump wrote. Reported the Washington Post:

Trump’s message came on the same day that the RNC reversed itself and returned to Alabama to support Moore, less than three weeks after pulling out of a joint fundraising agreement with his campaign. An RNC official with knowledge of the plans, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the re-engagement.

So would Trump in black face have made any difference to the GOP? Anything is possible in an alternative universe, but it’s hard to imagine that a party that can swallow accusations of pedophilia, sexual assault, and sympathy for white nationalism would suddenly develop scruples over a photo, especially when there are judges to be appointed, taxes to be cut, and walls to be built.

Let’s also be honest here: The reality is that Trump’s base would not be all that offended by another incident of racial insensitivity and the rest of the GOP has simply gotten used to going along.

This brings us to the hypocrisy of many of those now dunking on Northam. Clearly, it’s a sensitive issue. Rush Limbaugh’s less famous brother, David, tweeted this weekend:

Well, yes, David. By Jove, I think you’ve finally got it.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.