Scrambling to save his reelection campaign, Donald Trump is trying one last-ditch con: He’s pretending to care about people of color. “I love the Hispanics,” the president declared last month. “I’m doing so well with African American, with Asian American, with Hispanic American, and with women,” he said. But in front of white crowds on the campaign trail, Trump hasn’t changed a bit. He’s slandering minorities to exploit fear and bigotry.
At his rallies, Trump routinely tells white voters that Democrats would “destroy your suburbs” by installing “low-income housing projects.” When critics interpreted this as a racial dog whistle, Trump added a riff about nice nonwhite suburbanites. He was doing OK with that pretense until Sept. 30, when he slipped up at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota. “Thirty percent of the people in the suburbs are low-income people,” he blurted out, before correcting himself to “30 percent of the people in the suburbs are minorities.”
Another giveaway in Trump’s shtick about suburbs is the list of villains he blames for the plot to build low-income housing: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, and former President Barack Obama. If Democrats were to win the election, he warned at a rally in Ohio on Sept. 21, “You know who’s in charge of the program? Cory Booker. Cory Booker. Cory Booker.” A week later in Duluth, Trump said he had overruled Ben Carson, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to block these “low-income” projects. On Wednesday, at a rally in Iowa, Trump repeated his attack on Booker and his story about overruling Carson. It’s not hard to figure out what Booker, Harris, Obama, and Carson have in common.
Trump talks a lot about Obama—or, as he calls him, “Barack Hussein Obama.” At least 13 times in the past two months, Trump—who falsely suggested for years that Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim—has included Obama’s middle name when referring to him at rallies. Only twice has Trump said “Barack Obama,” and on one of those occasions, he immediately stopped to insert a “Hussein.” When Trump pretends to quote from the announcement of Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize—which specifically named the recipient as “Barack Obama”—Trump consistently inserts a “Hussein.” He delights in ridiculing the name.
The other name Trump loves to deride is “Kamala.” He hits the second syllable, incorrectly, with the same gusto he uses for “Hussein.” On Sept. 8, at a rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Trump pronounced Harris’s name correctly, and then, seven minutes later, reeled off a series of gleeful, contemptuous mispronunciations: “Ka-MA-la. Ka-MA-la. Ka-MA-la.” Even after acknowledging that Harris stresses the first syllable, he deliberately mispronounced it 14 more times at rallies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Virginia. “If you pronounce her name wrong, she goes crazy. Ka-MA-la,” he jeered. On Thursday, at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, he did it again.
Sometimes Trump mixes his digs at Harris with mockery of “Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren,” the Massachusetts senator who apologized for claiming Native American ancestry. But mostly, he pits Harris against Biden, claiming that “she called him a racist.” Trump knows she didn’t: In a debate that Trump claims to have watched, Harris literally said to Biden, “I do not believe you are a racist.” But despite multiple fact checks, Trump has repeated his lie at six campaign rallies. And instead of using this lie to smear Biden, Trump uses it to portray Harris as uppity. “Nobody treated Joe Biden worse than Ka-MA-la,” Trump told an audience in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on Aug. 17. “She had no respect.”
Disrespect is a recurrent theme in Trump’s criticisms of minorities. “All they do is complain,” he grumbled, referring to recent immigrants, at an Aug. 17 rally in Mankato, Minnesota. On Sept. 26, at a rally in Middletown, Pennsylvania, he denounced Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and now represents a district in Minnesota. “She’s always complaining,” he groused. “How did she come here? Does anybody know how she came here?” Four days later, at his rally in Duluth, he fumed that Omar—an American citizen—“tells us how to run our country.”
When Trump bashes immigrants, he generally targets Muslims. In his 2016 campaign, he demanded a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” In 2020, he has learned to frame this instead as a ban on travel from “jihadist regions.” But his favorite target is people who came from Somalia. “You have good genes in Minnesota,” he told a white crowd in Bemidji, Minnesota, on Sept. 18. “Every family in Minnesota needs to know about Sleepy Joe Biden’s extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia,” he warned. These refugees would “overwhelm your children’s schools” and “inundate your hospitals,” he said. Later, in Duluth, he repeated that Biden would invite refugees from “your favorite country, Somalia.” He added, sarcastically, “You love Somalia.”
In 2016, Trump aimed much of his bigotry at Latinos. He demanded that an American-born judge recuse himself from the Trump University fraud case because “we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.” But now that Trump needs the votes of Latinos, he’s trying, in his inept way, to suck up to them. “The Hispanics understand the border better than anybody else,” he asserted at a rally in Reno on Sept. 12. “They’re great business people. I know it from being in business. They were very tough.” Trump went on to brag about Hispanic border agents. “I know all of them,” he said, purporting to describe conversations with them: “Jose, how you doing? Juan, how you doing?”
Trump often criticizes his generals, calling call them “overrated.” But there’s one general he reveres. “Robert E. Lee won many, many battles,” Trump told the crowd in Bemidji. The North was supposed to be “too powerful for the South,” said Trump, but Lee’s victories showed what you can do “when you have leaders.” In North Carolina, Trump said agitators who sought to remove statues of Lee were trying to “take away your heroes.” In Virginia, he said he had warned people to stop these troublemakers before they “knock down the statue of Robert E. Lee.” And on Tuesday, at a rally in Pennsylvania, he complained about the initial move to take down a statue of “a Confederate soldier.” “These people are sick,” Trump told the audience. “These people, they want to take away your heritage.”
Trump calls himself “the least racist person anywhere in the world.” He pretends there’s nothing suspicious about a president who vilifies Somali Americans, who complains about Sen. Mitt Romney “walking with the Black Lives Matter” movement, and who tells Ohioans that a Black senator from New Jersey wants to fill their suburbs with low-income housing. “The Democrats smear decent Americans as racists,” he protested at his rally in Greenville on Thursday. No, Mr. President, the racism isn’t coming from decent Americans. It’s coming from you.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus