"The final thing I want to ask is this: Is Donald Trump a racist?" The question came at me this time from a Polish journalist, but his interest was not unique. My biography of Trump came out just as he began his campaign for president, and ever since my home has become a one-stop shop for journalists from around the world seeking to explain the man to readers and viewers. So many TV crews have visited that I can pre-arrange my furniture to suit their camera angles. Somehow I am never prepared for the racism question, even though everyone asks it.
The challenge lies in evaluating something unseen — a man's heart. My own sense of fairness makes me reluctant to do this, even as Trump attacks the integrity of a federal judge because he is "Mexican" and shouts out, "Look at my African American over here" at a rally. It is possible, however, to examine Trump's record — stretching back decades — and see big problems.
In the current campaign Trump has unforgettably demonized Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. He has mocked Asian businesspeople and the disabled. And, of course, he's proposed barring Muslims from entering the United States. He also personally distributed, via Twitter, blatantly false crime statistics, suggesting, among other things, that black Americans are responsible for 81% of white deaths due to murder. Trump's statistical accuracy was off by a factor of five, but if he was trying to incite racial animus, he hit the target squarely.
Years before this campaign, Trump made himself the leader of the so-called birther movement, alleging that Barack Obama was foreign-born making his presidency illegitimate. Trump pursued this craziness long after others abandoned it. Then he doubled down, demanding Obama release his college transcripts. "The word is, according to what I've read, that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental," said Trump. "Then he gets to Columbia. He then gets to Harvard.… how do you get into Harvard if you're not a good student?" No credible source ever suggested that Obama, who became president of the Harvard Law Review, lacked academic ability. But with a vague attribution — "according to what I've read" — Trump managed to dog-whistle affirmative action resentments.
Before he was a birther, Trump questioned the identity of American Indians testifying before Congress about tribal casinos in 1993, saying, "They don't look like Indians to me." In 1989 he used the unproved charges against five black and Latino teens in the tragic Central Park jogger case to publish an ad in four newspapers calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty.
In 1974, when Richard Nixon's Justice Department charged Trump Management Corp. with discriminating against black applicants for apartments, Trump cried "reverse discrimination." The notorious Roy Cohn, no stranger to bigotry, sued the government for $100 million on Trump's behalf. The suit went nowhere, but it did establish a 28-year-old Trump as an outspoken opponent of efforts to level the playing field on behalf of racial minorities. From that point forward, he would consistently defend the type of privilege he enjoyed — the advantages born of race, gender, class and wealth.
Trump's rhetoric in the current campaign shocks the foreign journalists who come to visit me. They have heard him indulge in his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rants and, worse, heard the cheers of thousand at his campaign events. They seem a little heartbroken that this is happening in a country – and to a country -- that has long inspired the world with its diversity and unity.
For his part, Trump knows he's playing with fire. On CNN last March he insisted that he's "the least racist person you'll ever meet." But what does that mean coming from him? On "Face The Nation" Sunday, Trump dismissed any American tradition against judging people based on family heritage, saying, "I'm not talking about tradition, I'm talking about common sense, OK?" The next day he told surrogates on a conference call to continue the attacks on federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel (a "hater") and go after reporters too. "The people asking the questions — those are the racists." It's "reverse discrimination" all over again.
Some high-profile Republicans, most notably House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), repudiated Trump's recent comments as "textbook racism." But plenty of others don't seem to acknowledge the obvious: If you're spending this much time and effort insisting your guy is not a bigot, that might be because he is one.
If Trump doesn't possesses a racist heart, he certainly has a cramped and frightened one. Time and again he has advocated retreat in the struggle for wider opportunity and equality, retreat to some time, perhaps in his imagination, when America was "great" for certain people to the exclusion of others.
Michael D'Antonio is the author of the biography "The Truth About Trump."