The Slatest

Donald Trump Can’t Disavow the KKK Because It Might Demoralize His Base

Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the South Point Hotel & Casino on Feb. 22 in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Let us dispel with the notion that Donald Trump doesn’t know who David Duke and the KKK are. In 2000, Trump briefly flirted with running for president on the Reform Party ticket, but concluded that the party was too full of extremists. Among them were David Duke, the Louisiana politician and former Grand Wizard of the KKK, right-wing populist Pat Buchannan, and all-purpose fringe figure Lenora Fulani.

“The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. Fulani,” the New York Times quoted Trump saying in a statement. “This is not company I wish to keep.”

How things have changed! On Sunday morning, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump to disavow Duke’s support for his current presidential bid. “I know nothing about David Duke,” Trump replied. “I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.”

Tapper kept pressing him, but Trump refused to say a negative word about either Duke or the KKK. “I don’t know what group you are talking about, you wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about; I’d have to look,” Trump said. “If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong, but …”

Tapper interjected, “The Ku Klux Klan?”

Trump continued, “You may have groups in there that are totally fine and it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups, and I’ll let you know.”

“OK, I mean I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here, but,” said Tapper.

“I don’t know any—honestly I don’t know David Duke,” replied Trump. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him, and I just don’t know anything about him.”

What’s interesting here is not that Trump is lying, but why he is lying. For most politicians, rejecting the KKK is not a hard call. Trump, however, seems to suspect that doing so will demoralize his base. Given how much white nationalist support he has, he might be right.

Indeed, Trump’s complete mendacity coexists with a twisted sort of honesty about his own motives. He doesn’t pretend to be anything but a bigot and a bully. Sunday, a few hours before refusing to condemn white supremacists, he retweeted @ilduce2016, a Twitter bot created by Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg that posts Mussolini quotes, ascribing them to Trump. (Its avatar is a photo of the Italian fascist sporting Trump’s poufy orange comb-over.) The quote Trump retweeted was, “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep,” followed by the hashtag #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. When Chuck Todd asked Trump about it on Meet The Press, Trump responded, “Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s a very good quote, it’s a very interesting quote. I know who said it, but what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”

“You want to be associated with a fascist?” Todd asked. “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes,” Trump replied. His associations are certainly interesting. And to paraphrase Marco Rubio, it seems like he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.