Interrogation

“The Idea That He’s Racist Is Absurd”

That Yale professor who knows “the real reason” liberals hate Trump defends his op-ed, the president, and birtherism.

Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump takes the stage for a rally in support of Sen. Ted Cruz.
Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump takes the stage for a rally in support of Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday at the Toyota Center in Houston.
Loren Elliott/Getty Images

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Real Reason They Hate Trump,” David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, offers his own account of why much of America dislikes our president. According to Gelernter, “This is an instructive hatred, because what the left hates about Donald Trump is precisely what it hates about America.” He continues: “This all leads to an important question—one that will be dismissed indignantly today, but not by historians in the long run: Is it possible to hate Donald Trump but not the average American? … What I see on the left is often plain, unconditional hatred of which the hater—God forgive him—is proud. It’s discouraging, even disgusting. And it does mean, I believe, that the Trump-hater truly does hate the average American—male or female, black or white. Often he hates America, too.” Of Trump, Gelertner says, “He is a typical American—except exaggerated.”

I recently spoke by phone with Gelernter, who has done path-breaking work in his field, and has more recently written about how American intellectuals are impoverishing the country and its values. After endorsing Trump in 2016, he was under consideration for a job as the president’s science adviser. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why he doesn’t think Trump can possibly be bigoted, what liberals don’t get about the president, and why he doesn’t have any problem with birtherism.

Isaac Chotiner: What do you think it is that people are missing in the analysis of why liberals dislike Trump?

David Gelernter: I don’t think they’re missing anything. He’s easy to dislike.

I’d never pick this guy to go for a drive in the country with any more than I would have picked Obama. [George W.] Bush was a wonderful guy. But I think Trump is a more effective president on the whole than Bush was, certainly much more effective than Obama. It would be great to love the president personally, to love and admire the president personally, but nations don’t get Abraham Lincoln every day, or Franklin Roosevelt for that matter.

You write in the piece about Trump’s “bluntness, his certainty that America is exceptional, his mistrust of intellectuals, his love of simple ideas that work, and his refusal to believe that men and women are interchangeable.” I assume those are things you like about him, no?

I like every one of them. [But] they’re all completely irrelevant to the question of whether I like him [personally] or not. Liking is a matter of personality. Liking is a matter of … it’s an emotional issue. It’s got nothing to do with what his political opinions are. I admire all sorts of people I don’t especially like, and I like many people whom I radically disagree with. I have to, being a teacher at Yale, which is 99.9 percent leftist in the faculty, not as out of balance as that among the students. But you can’t exist in academia if you’re going to dislike a liberal or a leftist personally. It can’t be done. Or, for that matter, in science and research.

You write that one of the reasons liberals dislike Trump is because he embodies the average American. Can you explain that idea?

I absolutely did not say that. I don’t say that. I don’t believe that liberals dislike Trump because he embodies the virtues of the average American. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to them. In fact, I know it’s never occurred to them. It’s never occurred to me until I wrote this piece and until I had cause to write it.

I certainly see in real life surrounding me that there is little or no rapport between the left and what I consider the average American.

You say, “Mr. Trump reminds us who the average American really is.” It seems like you’re saying Trump embodies certain real American values and leftists don’t like him because they don’t like those values. Am I misreading your piece?

What I’m doing here is literary criticism. That’s my genre.

Oh, OK.

If I write a piece about a novel, I’m not saying, “I wish the plot were changed in the next edition and this character were deleted.” I’m trying to understand the world as I see it, and in the world as I see it, two facts coincide: the dislike of the good people amid whom I spend my life for—people I’ve often lived across the street from: auto mechanics, glaziers, and ordinary, nonprofessorial, nonacademic, nonscientific types on the one hand—and the political divide in this country between those who support, not necessarily “like,” Trump, those who support him, and those who either can’t stand him or don’t support him or both. He wasn’t my candidate. He wasn’t my first choice or second choice or third or fourth or fifth choice. But when he was elected, I had to ask myself, “What is it that the people who voted for him like about him?” I couldn’t muster the arrogance to say, “Who the hell cares?”

Later in the piece you say, “Mr. Trump is a parody of the average American, not the thing itself,” but you also say, “I believe that the Trump-hater truly does hate the average American.”

Right. No contradiction.

I spend a lot of time around liberals, and I think the reason that they—

I’m sure. Not as much time as I do. Well, maybe. Anyway.

I live in the Bay Area, so I wouldn’t be so sure.

Well, I live in the center of a university, so same thing.

One reason that people dislike the president is that he expresses racism and misogyny and contempt for other groups of people, and that turns off a lot—

Those are assertions that, to me, are crazy and sound, like, slanderous.

What did you think birtherism was?

Birtherism, these tags are meaningless. If you’re referring to them specifically, tell me what it is.

Calling into question whether or not Barack Obama was born in America.

What’s wrong with calling that into question? A lot of people were not born in America. Don’t restrict my freedom to ask questions that are perfectly legitimate, that cast no aspersion unless you choose to take them that way. Most of my best friends were not born in America.

Well, that’s fantastic.

If, however, they assert that they were, then I am within my rights to say, “Wait a minute. You’re saying this but I don’t believe it.”

So you’re saying that Trump calling into question Obama’s place of birth … you did not find that to be racist or strange?

Zero point zero. Not racist, not strange. It would’ve been strange if he hadn’t mentioned it. This is a political campaign. This is a political campaign in which the most fundamental issue has to do with the qualification of the other guy for office. Does he even meet the bar? Does he meet the legal requirement?

I mean, if he didn’t ask those questions, he doesn’t qualify as a candidate himself. Of course he’s going to ask them, and loads of people were asking them, including liberals who were opposed to … yeah, there are a lot of reasons to ask obvious questions about a person’s qualifications.

So just to get you on the record, you saw nothing strange or racist in birtherism?

I will assert that I have never met anybody who raised those questions for a racist reason. And “strange”—I have no idea what you mean by “strange.”

What about him saying on tape that he grabbed women “by the pussy?”

I think that was disgusting and I find JFK’s behavior disgusting, although I happen to admire John Kennedy a lot, and I admire Bill Clinton also. That doesn’t mean I admire everything about them. It doesn’t mean that I would emulate their behavior in a million years or allow my sons to make a model of it, nor would they ever. But I hope I’m sufficiently nuanced in my views not to throw the guy out because of some things that disqualify him in my view to be a friend or a model or a mentor to me or my family or my students. Does that mean I can hold out for somebody’s personality I approve in voting for president? Well, I tried to, but those guys all got voted down. I can’t expect to love those down the line, and I very rarely love them at all. That’s called democracy.

I know you’ve heard his comments about Mexican rapists and all that. I assume you don’t think those are racially charged?

I think the idea that he’s a racist is absurd.

What did you think about—

I don’t think you understand that men—hard-line, wealthy, privileged WASPs—with Jewish sons-in-law are not racists. You take these things for granted. I’m a little older and I don’t.

Come again? I’m confused.

If he has accepted and embraced Jews in his family, it is absurd to call him a prejudiced or biased or bigoted man.

So just to be clear—

Absurd on the face of it.

If you accept Jews in your family, you cannot dislike Mexicans or African Americans or Muslims? That’s your theory?

You can dislike anybody you choose. That doesn’t make you a racist. You can dislike individuals. You don’t dismiss the race, and Trump never has, of course. He has never said, “Mexicans are a race I dislike.” They’re not a race at all, and he doesn’t claim who they are. I mean, it’s the left who’s made a race of Hispanics, which is idiocy, as if Spanish-speaking people were a race and French-speaking people weren’t. I mean, you started this and we have to deal with it. You’ve built a world in which we live. We do our best handling it.

What did you feel about his response to Charlottesville?

His response to Charlottesville: I think he says a lot of stupid things.

OK. Anything else?

Well, I’ve already said that a lot of times. I mean, he’s not my type of guy. I don’t like people who do not think before they speak, but there are loads of such people, some of whom were very dear to me.

I just want to read you something Trump said. “I’ve had horrible rulings, I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge … Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK?” So he was calling into question whether the judge could rule fairly because of his Mexican heritage, which I know you do not define as a race. Fine. Mexicans in and of themselves are not a race, I get that. But that seems like he’s making a statement that someone cannot judge fairly—

I don’t remember the context of the statement. I’m not going to comment on it. If you think I’m going to stand here and defend everything that Trump says, that’s not my business.

Well, you said he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body or something, and I’m bringing it up—

Right, I certainly believe that.

OK, so you have no comment about the Mexican-heritage statement?

No, but I don’t believe it was a racist statement. I would want to look up the context.

OK. Last thing about Trump’s patriotism. Trump has said a lot of—

Let me just insert parenthetically. If I say something like, “I came before this judge. He did something rotten and unfair, but after all he was an Arab,” maybe I’m bigoted against Arabs. Maybe, on the other hand, I don’t have a bigoted bone in my body and I believe that Arabs are bigoted against me. Those are two completely separate things, and if you think races other than white Anglo-Saxons are incapable of bigotry, it’s unbelievably naïve. There are a lot of bigots in the world, and a minority of them are whites in my experience.

Well, a lot of people in this world are racist and they come from all different races. Calling into question someone’s ruling as a judge because

Racist is a silly word for it, but there are a lot of bigots in the world. I agree. I don’t know very many people who aren’t one way or another. We all have biases because we’re all human beings.

I think we’ve seen that just in the last 15 minutes here. So let me just ask you—

Well, yeah. I’ve revealed myself as being human and I think probably you have too. I don’t want to disown that fact. Of course I’m human and of course I don’t claim to be perfect. I’m not a bigot and neither is Trump.

Trump has said a lot of negative things about the country. He’s specifically disavowed American exceptionalism. He has said that—

Are you denying he believes in American exceptionalism?

I’m saying that he has disavowed it.

I don’t care what he said on June 19 when he was in a lather about not having his best friend on the podium with him or whatever the hell it was.

He said we’re no better than Russia.

Are you saying that he is not an American exceptionalist? You are saying that, like Barack Obama, he has no belief in the exceptional and unique destiny of the United States? I don’t think you’ve read his speeches very carefully.

I think he dislikes many things about the modern American United States, yes.

Not as many as you do. To judge from what comes out of the left, I think—I know—he’s a lot happier with this country than you are.

When he was asked about Putin killing journalists, he said that we’re no better. Things like that.

That’s a typical left-wing statement as you know very well. I mean, this is what the left likes to sell: a global approach in which nobody’s better than anybody else.

Your article presents him as someone who is “getting the job done.”

Absolutely.

Does it bother you, the reports of bad business practices and tax fraud that have come out about him, No. 1—

Of course. I think they ought to be investigated by somebody like Robert Mueller, absolutely. Good idea.

And two, the reports from people inside the White House and journalists outside that his day consists of watching TV, golfing, etc.?

If you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. It’s not possible. It’s not conceivable. Anybody who’s been within 50 miles of the White House knows it is not possible to be president following that regimen. It’s a lie. Let me say it this way: I read it as a lie. I don’t believe it. No, I don’t believe it.