The Racial Contempt of the Republican National Convention

Donald Trump holds a certificate with an American flag alongside a newly inaugurated citizen.
Donald Trump hosts a naturalization ceremony for new citizens in a pre-recorded video broadcasted during the RNC. Several participants did not know they were being filmed for this purpose. Handout/Getty Images

When the Democratic National Convention wrapped, there were two obvious questions about how the Republicans would respond: How would the Trump apparatus talk about the pandemic, which it had grossly mismanaged, and how would it talk about race? The answer ended up being straightforward: with deceit. The difference was that with the pandemic, the convention simply sent Mike Pence to stand at a podium and lie about the administration’s COVID-19 response; to lie about the administration’s approach to America’s immigrant and minority population, however, the convention wanted to showcase real people. It got them without asking.

We now know that two of the weirder videos of the RNC featuring regular people were filmed without at least some of the participants knowing what the recording would be used for. In the first, a naturalization ceremony of conspicuously nonwhite new Americans was presided over by President Donald Trump in the White House. In the second, four residents of New York public housing, all people of color, decried Mayor Bill de Blasio and offered praise of the Trump administration’s HUD investment in the city’s Housing Authority, known as NYCHA. That these people were deployed without their knowledge to boost the reelection chances of Donald Trump is not just unethical and hypocritical—it’s an act of rank dehumanization.

It’s easy for that fact to be obfuscated by the details. New citizen Sudha Sundari Narayanan told the New York Times she was “surprised and shocked and excited” to discover she was featured in the convention, and Salih Abdul Samad joked that he was now “a star.” NYCHA tenant and residential council president Claudia Perez told the Times, “I am not a Trump supporter,” and said she was furious about not being informed of the video’s true purpose. But in the recording she also said, “President Trump’s administration has opened their ear and have listened.” If all these statements are true, that some of the naturalization participants aren’t unhappy at having been featured, and the NYCHA residents did have nice things to say about Trump’s HUD, then isn’t it a case of no harm, no foul?

It’s not. If the ostensible purpose of these videos is to show that, against much contrary evidence, the Trump administration cares about and works to improve the lives of nonwhite Americans, then why the ruse? Why not be honest with the very people whose welfare is supposedly being prioritized? It may be true that the people in the videos feel warmth or gratitude toward Trump, but that does not invalidate the violation of not having even been asked. Anyone lending their image or words to a four-night commercial for the president has the right to consent to that use. Maybe all five of the naturalized citizens would have agreed to the appearance, but we’ll never know. The calculus was already made not to bother—a deeper, more paternalistic exploitation than the speaking invitations made to white widows and parents who had lost loved ones to violence. Naturalized citizen Neimat Awadelseid told the Wall Street Journal that though she wasn’t told about the convention, she remembers signing a media release form—manipulation by fine print.

All of these people at least deserved the dignity of a choice. New York HUD director (and erstwhile Trump family party planner) Lynne Patton claims that the NYCHA residents knew what the taping was for, but only one tenant told reporters she did—the one who happened to be a Trump supporter and whose baseless assertion that illegal immigrants receive housing priority was given title-card treatment in the video. The other three residents were not given the chance to decide whether they wanted to participate in a campaign video, because their preferences didn’t matter.

Some Trump infringements can feel discrete and random; others are jewellike reflections of the entire rotted enterprise. The RNC deceptions are the latter. As my colleague Aymann Ismail laid out, for four days the Republican Party pretended to be what it wasn’t: a party for all Americans, and not, as its abdication of a platform made clear, the party of one man, let alone one demographic. The nonwhite Republican officials given primo speaking slots were providing cover for a campaign that has no real interest in their communities, only the appearance of that interest—but at least they did so of their own volition.

The Trump campaign hoped to use the faces of the naturalized citizens and NYCHA residents as humanizing props. Now their faces serve to humanize the utter disregard that the Republican Party has for people like them, and the pride that Trump officials feel at flouting the rules. Had the convention been an honest one, had it glorified the overly white and male leadership of industry, party, and government and argued for hegemonic dominance as the best future for the country, then at least such a platform could be evaluated on its terms. Instead, it put on a recursive theater of lies, condescending not only to the participants who were lied to, but to a target audience treated much the same, as a set of people to be tricked.

This is a different beast than the racist rhetoric that one has been trained to listen for—the inflammatory ad-libs by the president, the chants for a wall, for revenge. This is a far cooler, more bureaucratic form of contempt, manipulating people of color for propagandistic purposes as if they are a part of the backdrop to be staged, like the South Lawn of the White House, or the Washington Monument. Our attention over the past four years has gravitated toward expressive examples of aggression, but even greater pain can come from indifference. It’s one thing to be hated. It’s another to be used.