On Feb. 20, my friend and colleague Dr. Joshua Hochschild tweeted, “About 40% of Americans don’t think the election was won fairly. If that seems strange to you, can I try to help you imagine how many people experienced the election? Will you let me tell you a story?”
I didn’t think it strange that 40% of Americans thought the election was stolen from Donald Trump. According to Gallup, Trump’s average approval rating over the course of his term was 41% and, as candidate Trump famously bragged in 2016, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters.” Long before the 2020 election, Trump was tweeting that the only way he could lose would be if the election were rigged. And after he did lose, his claims of a stolen election only intensified. So, yeah, 40% sounds about right.
But I’m always up for a good story and Hochschild tweeted that he wrote the story “to promote understanding.” God knows we could use more understanding these days. So I read what Hochschild called his “semi-autobiographical story.”
What I read disturbed me greatly.
The story included questionable assertions like Trump being “not owned… He doesn’t owe anything to anyone.” Well, since Donald Trump is the only presidential candidate since Richard Nixon not to release his tax returns, it’s hard to tell. We do know his debts are in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so he owes somebody a lot.
There was a Bill Barr-worthy mischaracterization of the Mueller Report.
There was a distorted account of Trump’s phone conversation with Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensberger. If you read the transcript of the call or, better yet, listen to the recording of the call, you’ll hear Trump threaten Raffensberger with criminal prosecution and, sounding like a crime boss, tell Raffensberger, “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than” [Joe Biden’s winning margin in the state].
And then there was Hochschild’s treatment of racism and Trump in the story.
Since my friend has called his story semi-autobiographical, it’s possible when he writes, “maybe some of your friends call you a racist for supporting Trump, but you know you aren’t a racist, and you don’t think he is either.” He’s describing himself. Well, I’m not calling Hochschild a racist. And I’m not calling all 74 million Americans who voted for Trump racists either.
So, in the hope of promoting understanding, will you allow me to take the story down a different path?
Let’s say, to borrow a phrase from my friend’s story, you’re inclined to agree with Hochschild’s analysis of Trump’s remarks after Charlottesville, that Trump said there were “fine people” on both sides of the debate about statues and that Trump condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
However, you’re a bit uneasy at how quickly Hochschild dismisses what he calls “the hoax” that Trump is “an unashamed racist.” Maybe he’s right that Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments aren’t a smoking gun, but you decide to dig deeper.
You find that in the three days after Charlottesville, Trump made several statements that, to the then-Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said “sounded like a moral equivocation or at the very least moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity.”
You learn that according to a report by Pulitzer-winning journalist, Bob Woodward, almost immediately after the president’s post-Charlottesville condemnation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Trump told aides the condemnation was the “biggest fucking mistake” and described it as the “worst speech” he’s ever given. That would be troubling if true, but you’re skeptical of journalists, even Pulitzer-winning ones, maybe especially the prize-winning ones. So you dig some more.
You learn that the day of the Charlottesville rally, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Trump, and called the march “a turning point for the people of this country.” “We are determined to take our country back,” he said. “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
A little more reading and you find that in 2016, Duke endorsed Trump for president and when questioned about it, Trump declined to disavow the endorsement falsely claiming he didn’t know anything about David Duke. You’re not a racist, but you wonder what it says that the likes of David Duke is an unabashed Trump supporter.
You go back further in Trump’s history and find that way back in 1973, the Justice Department filed a civil rights case against the Trump firm for violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The allegation was steering blacks and Puerto Ricans away from Trump buildings with mostly white tenants toward buildings with a high percentage of minority tenants. The case settled and the government claimed victory, but so did Trump and his father, because as is common, the settlement did not include an admission of liability. You’re not sure what to make of that.
Then let’s say you read about the Central Park Five case where a group of black and Latino men were charged with raping a woman in Central Park in 1989. Trump, who was then a high-profile developer in New York, ran ads in all the New York City papers calling for the return of the death penalty, in part so the five men could be executed. The five men were convicted, but in 2002, DNA evidence exonerated them and they were released. Still, as recently as 2016, Donald Trump continued to maintain their guilt.
You then remember Trump descending an escalator in June of 2015 to announce his candidacy and saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Wasn’t the springboard to Trump’s 2016 campaign the false claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US–a claim that Trump promoted for years starting in 2011? You ask yourself: Was it racist for Trump to attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the country’s first black president by stoking a false claim? Wasn’t Trump essentially promoting a lie to convince people that a black man didn’t deserve to live at the most prestigious address in the country? You’re still sure you’re not a racist, but Trump?
Then let’s say you look to Trump’s time in office and you recall confirmed reports of an Oval Office meeting in 2018 where the topic was protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal and Trump asked, ‘Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He then suggested the US should bring in more people from countries like Norway. You think that for Trump it reduces to an equation: majority white countries = good, majority black countries = bad.
You think back to the first 2020 presidential debate in September when Trump was asked to condemn white supremacist groups and in particular the Proud Boys. His response was “stand back and stand by.” Certainly not a denunciation. And the Proud Boys did stand by until they attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
And then rather than wondering as Hochschild does, why, when it comes to Trump rallies, the media always show a picture of a Confederate flag, you instead wonder why there are always Confederate flags to photograph at Trump rallies.
Finally, imagine asking this: What if I was wrong about Trump? What if I made a mistake?