So this just happened, and to anyone who has been following Donald Trump’s campaign, it’s not a really big surprise: Donald Trump tweeted out a graphic accusing Hillary Clinton of corruption—no big stretch there—with a prominently placed Star of David over a background of money. The implication, obviously, is that she’s in the pocket of those nefarious Jews.
The tweet has since been deleted, but it looked like this.
After two days, the Trump campaign came up with the best “dog at my homework” excuse ever: that Trump just thought the six-pointed star was the shape of a Sheriff’s badge. Which prompted widespread mockery, along these lines:
TRUMP: (watching Schindler’s List) Why are they trying to get rid of all the sheriffs?
— Daniel Lin (@DLin71) July 4, 2016
Proving that we have passed over the Poe Horizon once and for all, it turns out that Trump was actually just playing catch-up with his critics’ most absurd projections of his possible response.
But this is all just after-the-fact rationalization because we know exactly where that Trump meme came from: it was created by a white supremacist and posted to a racist discussion group.
And we know exactly how it made its way onto Trump’s Twitter feed: his campaign team is deeply tied into so-called “alt-right” racist social media networks, whose memes regularly make their way into Trump’s social media feed.
So, hooray! The Democrats voted for a candidate whose e-mail was probably penetrated by Russian and Chinese security services. And now Republicans are about to nominate a candidate whose entire campaign is penetrated by the Aryan Nation.
Except that we haven’t actually nominated him yet. The official nomination happens in a few weeks at the Republican National Convention, and that will be our last chance to free the delegates, letting them vote their conscience—and to find, at the last minute, someone else to be the standard-bearer of the party.
It’s a drastic solution, to be sure, and it’s unlikely. Political courage has been in short supply this year. Which, come to think of it, makes this pretty much like every other year. It’s just that political courage was more desperately needed this year, which makes its absence all the more noticeable.
But it’s past time to start thinking about a drastic solution, because there are only two reasonable explanations for this latest disaster. None of them bodes well for the future.
1. Trump is incompetent.
Some people are describing that Star of David tweet as a “dog whistle.” The idea is that politicians sometimes send a message meant to be recognized only by a certain target audience, but (as with a dog whistle) inaudible to everyone else. A candidate whose official positions are designed not to scare off pro-choice moderates, for example, might still use a peculiar turn of phrase (perhaps “culture of life”) that is intended to help pro-lifers recognize him as one of their own.
But this isn’t a dog whistle, because everyone can hear it. Despite Trump’s weird ad hoc excuses, the Star of David is a universally recognizable symbol. Nor is there much subtlety in tweeting items from someone whose handle is “White Genocide.” Crafting a true dog whistle meant to appeal to racists without alarming everyone else might be despicable, but it would at least be clever. This isn’t.
Managing a candidate’s communications with the public to make sure that he avoids saying things that will drive away millions of voters is a basic function of a campaign. Trump’s operation is proving utterly incompetent at this basic task. Or the candidate is. Or both.
Or maybe they just can’t filter out this sort of thing because it’s what the candidate and his campaign staff really think. Which leads us to the more disturbing possibility.
2. Trump is actually a racist.
I am automatically skeptical of any speculation about what Donald Trump actually thinks. He has a record of saying whatever pops randomly into his brain or seems like the right way to butter up a particular audience at a particular moment. That’s not the same thing as a genuine belief or principle.
But here’s the thing. People who are not racists have alarm bells that go off, warning them not to say or repeat certain things. These are called “inhibitions,” and they can be good when they inhibit us from saying stupid and irrational things. Donald Trump repeats these things because he lacks those inhibitions.
So is his susceptibility to memes from anti-Semites and white nationalists just part of a general lack of inhibitions—or does he specifically lack an inhibition against racism?
Yeah, you’re right: who cares. If reasonable people have to debate about whether the Republican candidate is really a racist or just accidentally sounds like one, then we’ve already lost. We’ve lost the election, and we’ve lost our principles. It may be too late to avoid the first of those disasters, and Republicans have only a few weeks left to avoid the second.