President Donald Trump planned to run for reelection on a strong economy. Instead, he’s facing tens of thousands of deaths and mass unemployment. But Trump has another theme he can run on, and he’s already using it: white anxiety. His latest campaign ad frames the coronavirus crisis as a battle against China. The ad accuses former Vice President Joe Biden of siding with Beijing, and it shows Gary Locke, the Chinese American former governor of Washington, standing between Chinese flags—a reminder that Trump often conflates ancestry with national allegiance. Trump has also revived talk of drug cartels, migrant caravans, and “strong borders.” On April 1, when a reporter asked him about domestic violence, Trump thought the question was about his message of the day. “Mexican violence?” the president asked.
If Trump runs a campaign of nationalism and ethnic fear, as he has done before, he’ll have a sympathetic propagandist at his side. Last week, he appointed Kayleigh McEnany, his campaign’s spokeswoman, as the new White House press secretary. McEnany has a long record of defending Trump’s smears. She has joked about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, lied about Obama golfing after a terrorist murder, and claimed that when Trump said “Grab ’em by the pussy,” his preface—“they let you do it”—“implies consent.”* But McEnany’s most remarkable performance came in 2016, when then-candidate Trump denounced U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel—who was presiding over a fraud case against Trump University—as “Mexican.” To protect Trump, McEnany insisted that even overt racism wasn’t racist. Her appointment as press secretary shows how low the White House is willing to go.
The smear campaign against Curiel is worth revisiting because of its naked prejudice. Trump directly attacked Curiel’s ancestry. He said Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” made the judge hostile to Trump, since “I’m very, very strong on the border.” (Curiel was born in Indiana.) Trump called this “an inherent conflict of interest.” He demanded that Curiel “recuse himself,” and he said the judiciary should “look into Judge Curiel.” In a CNN interview, Trump put his indictment bluntly: “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.”
Some Republicans condemned Trump. But McEnany, who was then a CNN commentator, stood by him. In more than a dozen appearances, she maintained that transparently bigoted statements weren’t bigoted. Here are some of the reasons she came up with.
1. It’s not racism if it’s aimed at an ethnic group. On June 7, 2016, Paul Ryan, who was then the Republican speaker of the House, said Trump’s statements met the “textbook definition of a racist comment.” McEnany rebuked Ryan and rejected his criticism. “First of all, being Mexican is an ethnicity. It’s not a race,” she said. “So, by virtue of that, it’s not textbook racism.” (Mexican is a nationality. But never mind.)
2. It’s not bigotry if you could have said it less crudely. McEnany refused to concede that Trump’s language—heritage, inherent, he’s a Mexican—had “racial undertones.” Instead, she excused it as “inartful” and “poorly worded.” She counseled him to “revise” his attack, not renounce it. “He needs to divorce the ‘heritage’ from his argument, and then he’ll get more traction,” she suggested.
3. It’s not bigotry if it’s only about enmity. When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked McEnany whether “a black judge can’t rule on issues that relate to African Americans,” she replied that attributions of bias based on ancestry, such as Trump’s claims about Curiel, couldn’t be racist. Only claims about “the inferiority of another race” could be racist.
4. It’s not bigotry if you have a grievance. McEnany pointed out that Trump brought up Curiel’s heritage only after the judge issued “a series of rulings” against him. By waiting until he had “viable claims against the judge”—instead of declaring at the outset, “I don’t want this judge on my case, he’s of Mexican heritage”—Trump, according to McEnany, proved he was “not a racist.”
5. It’s not bigotry if other people have also made ethnic statements. McEnany said Trump’s allegations of bias were just an extension of the claim, made by many pundits, that Latinos opposed Trump’s immigration policies. It made no difference, in her view, that Trump used this stereotype to disqualify a judge, rather than to talk politics on TV. “Everyone’s fine with it when a liberal says it on this panel,” she protested during a CNN appearance. “But when Donald Trump says it, all of a sudden people have a problem with it.”
6. It’s not bigotry if you can invent other motives. After Trump complained that Curiel was “Mexican,” his supporters scrambled for a better case against the judge. They targeted Curiel’s membership in the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association. First they said the association was involved in protests against Trump. Then, when that was debunked, they accused the association of promoting illegal immigration because, among the many students to whom it had awarded college scholarships, one turned out to be undocumented. (The association never asked applicants about their status.) McEnany told both stories. She asserted, falsely, that Trump had denounced Curiel only after he “found out about his affiliation” with the association. When CNN’s Jake Tapper pointed out that McEnany was making arguments Trump hadn’t made himself, she dismissed this as an oversight on Trump’s part. “He’s not a polished politician,” she pleaded.
7. It’s not bigotry if it applies only to noncitizens. During their debates about Curiel, CNN’s panelists occasionally compared Trump’s attacks on the judge to his threats against Muslims. McEnany defended these threats, extending her apologism to religious discrimination. When one panelist, Marc Lamont Hill, criticized Trump’s 2015 proposal for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” McEnany rebuked him. She noted that it was only a “temporary ban on non-U.S. citizen Muslims.”
8. It’s not bigotry if you also distrust some white people. After McEnany defended the proposed Muslim ban, Trump took it a step further. He said he might have the same problem with a Muslim judge that he was having with Curiel. When John Dickerson of CBS asked Trump whether he worried that “a Muslim judge … wouldn’t be able to treat you fairly,” Trump replied, “Yes, that would be possible, absolutely.” This answer was fine, McEnany reasoned, because Trump would also have said that “a white liberal judge could be biased” against him.
9. It’s not bigotry if you get along with some nonwhite people. If Trump were prejudiced, said McEnany, “tons and tons of his employees” would have shown up on television to present evidence against him. Actually, former employees and the U.S. Department of Justice had indeed accused Trump and his companies of racist acts and statements. But McEnany insisted he couldn’t be racist, since he had “negotiated deals with people of … all races.”
10. It’s not bigotry if we need to defend it in order to hold power. Normally, Cooper observed, a candidate’s advisers would tell him, “You called [the judge] Mexican. He is not Mexican. He’s American.” But Trump wasn’t normal, said McEnany. “Sometimes he goes too far,” she conceded. “Sometimes, you know, he says things that we wish he didn’t. But many Republicans and conservatives see it as the cost of change.”
Like other Republicans, McEnany decided it was more important to stick with Trump than to renounce him, even after he flaunted his ethnic resentments. And Republicans are still with him, despite further racist outbursts. But McEnany goes further. She redefines bigotry so that even flagrant attacks—banning Muslims, disqualifying Latino judges, impugning the patriotism of Chinese Americans—can be excused. If you’re willing to defend such things, it hardly matters whether you call yourself a bigot.
Correction, April 22, 2020: This post originally stated that Kayleigh McEnany lied about Trump golfing after a terrorist murder. She lied about Obama golfing.