Donald Trump was publicly accused of bigotry in a lawsuit almost a half century ago. In response, the former president’s first open denial of racism ever to appear in The New York Times came on Oct. 16, 1973.
He was responding to charges filed by the Justice Department alleging racial bias at his family’s real-estate company: “They are absolutely ridiculous,” Trump said of the charges. “We have never discriminated, and we never would.”
That civil rights case more than 49 years ago sought to prove the Trump Management Company, which oversaw 39 properties in New York City, had instructed employees to tell African American lease applicants there were no available apartments. One witness, Elyse Goldweber, stated that two couples — one white and the other Black — arrived at Trump Village, a lower-middle-class housing project in Brooklyn, where the white couple was warmly welcomed but the Black applicants were told there were no available apartments.
Goldweber wondered, “Was (Trump) concerned about injustice? No. Never. This was an annoyance. We were little annoying people, and we wouldn’t go away.”
Barbara Res, an engineer and attorney who worked 18 years for the Trump Organization and was the executive vice president who oversaw the construction of New York’s Trump Tower, has spoken out against her former boss numerous times since leaving her position, particularly concerning his prejudicial treatment of others. She recounted:
He was very much the kind of person who would take people of a religion, like Jews; or a race, like Blacks; or a nationality, like Italians, and ascribe to them certain qualities. Blacks were lazy, and Jews were good with money, and Italians were good with their hands — and Germans were clean.
“This behavior is blatant stereotyping.”
This behavior is blatant stereotyping — making oversimplified generalizations that are markedly lazy, judgmental, unfair and dishonest. Writer and political commentator Walter Lippman (1889-1974) introduced the concept of “stereotypes,” or “pictures in our heads,” what Harvard’s Diana Eck has called the “sketchy and distorted images created by one (individual or) group to describe, label and caricature another.”
Trump is very adept at crafting and communicating such biased and misleading word pictures.
He still doesn’t believe he discriminates against anyone. In his first national debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, he claimed: “I’m the least racist person that you’ve ever encountered.”
This assertion is a personal whitewash he has employed many times.
Yet he is widely perceived as a bigot, because of his public record of statements and actions attacking African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, other Latinos, Africans, Chinese and Muslims, as well as women, disabled persons, members of the press, sports figures, entertainers, political opponents, immigrants and even his own relatives.
A “bigot,” according to the online dictionary Oxford Languages, is “a person who is obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion or faction, especially one who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group.”
“Trump levels these verbal assaults to elicit the approval of his audience.”
Perhaps Trump actually believes the cruel characterizations and mean-spirited nicknames he applies to others. Or maybe he simply considers all those whom he targets to be “annoying little people” who challenge or criticize him or who stand in his way. Without a doubt, however, Trump levels these verbal assaults to elicit the approval of his audience — whether on television or social media — and to elevate his own status.
Many of Trump’s racist or bigoted comments are well-known. For example, Barack Obama was not born in America and thus was an illegal presidential candidate and president, Trump said baselessly. Mexicans coming into America are rapists and drug dealers, he said wrongly. Refugees from Africa and Haiti come from “shithole countries” and should be replaced with white immigrants from nations like Norway. The pandemic was caused by the “China Virus” or the “Kung Flu.” Black professional football players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice are “sons of bitches” who should be thrown out of the game, if not the sport itself. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” on their torch-lit march in Charlottesville, Va., were “very fine people.” Trump’s political opponents were led by “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Pocahontas” and “Sleepy Joe.”
Other slanderous statements by Trump may not be as familiar as these. When elevators at Trump Tower were being approved by him in a final walk-through before the building’s opening in 1983, he asked what the little dots next to floor numbers were. “It’s Braille,” the architect replied, and “it’s the law.” To which Trump replied: “Get rid of it. No blind people are going to live in this building.”
Kip Brown, a former employee at Trump’s Castle, testified: “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the Black people off the floor. It was the eighties, I was a teenager, but I remember it: They put us all in the back.”
The “Central Park Five,” a group of Black and Latino teenagers wrongly accused of raping a white woman in the park in 1989, stirred Trump’s racial sensibilities so much he took out full-page ads in four New York newspapers arguing they “should be forced to suffer” and “be executed.” When they were exonerated by DNA evidence — after spending as much as 11 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit — he again became angry and called the financial settlement they were awarded for false imprisonment “a disgrace.”
In 2000, facing a challenge for his Atlantic City properties from a proposed casino to be owned by the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, Trump paid for ads suggesting the Native American competitors had a “record of criminal activity (that) is well documented.”
At a South Carolina rally in 2015, Trump waved his arms about in a spastic fashion and spoke in an affected voice, performing an impression of reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from a congenital joint condition called arthrogryposis.
“Trump contended that Judge Gonzalo Curiel should step aside because he is a Mexican American with membership in a Latino lawyers’ association.”
During a lawsuit against Trump University in 2016, Trump contended that Judge Gonzalo Curiel should step aside because he is a Mexican American with membership in a Latino lawyers’ association.
At a 2018 California roundtable about immigration, Trump said: “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them. … You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
He posted on Twitter in 2019 that a group of progressive Democratic Congresswomen — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlabi — should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
These racist and bigoted comments by Donald Trump are representative of too many others to enumerate. What is the significance when the president of the United States, regarded as the most powerful person in the world, speaks and acts in this manner?
Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and canon historian of the Washington National Cathedral. In his book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, he writes:
There was nothing, Lyndon Johnson remarked, that “makes a man come to grips more directly with his conscience than the presidency. Sitting in that chair involves making decisions that draw out a man’s fundamental commitments. The burden of responsibility literally opens up his soul. … The office was a crucible of character. In that house of decision, the White House, a man becomes his commitments. He understands who he really is. He learns what he genuinely wants to be.”
“The power of the presidency drew out Donald Trump’s fundamental commitments, which arguably are his racism and persistent prejudices.”
The power of the presidency drew out Donald Trump’s fundamental commitments, which arguably are his racism and persistent prejudices. This moral failure — what Baptist writer and activist Jim Wallis has called “America’s original sin” — might be identified as Trump’s “original sin” also. His bigotry has been clear to his critics and even many of his supporters.
As recently as February 2022, in a Texas rally, Trump demonstrated this defect yet again as he teased the crowd with the suggestion that he might run for president in 2024 — “to take back that beautiful, beautiful house that happens to be white.”
About the presidency, Meacham further notes:
A president sets a tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and of mind. Presidential action and presidential grace are often crucial in ameliorating moments of virulence and violence — and presidential indifference and presidential obtuseness can exacerbate such hours.
Trump certainly has set a national tone. He has given tacit permission for Americans to express their own prejudices overtly. Incidents of public rudeness and verbal ugliness have become “OK.” Racist rhetoric has begun to be spewed much more frequently, both on talk radio and social media. Violence against Chinese Americans followed Trump’s talk of the “China Virus,” while it became more dangerous to be a Muslim in America in the wake of his efforts to block Muslims from entering the United States.
Trump’s disciples — such as Marjorie Taylor Greene — are still talking of the invasion at our southern border and even calling it “the most dangerous border in the world,” obviously overlooking, for example, the borders between Russia and Ukraine or the one between North and South Korea.
Emboldened by the president’s embrace of Christian symbolism, like his holding up a Bible at St. John’s Church even as club-wielding enforcers beat back a legally protesting crowd in Washington’s Lafayette Square, many who attacked the Capitol on January 6 carried Christian posters and other Jesus paraphernalia.
“There is no question that Charlottesville wouldn’t have occurred without Trump.”
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville racist-driven rally, Richard Spencer — a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist and founder of the Alt-Right — declared that “there is no question that Charlottesville wouldn’t have occurred without Trump.”
On that same occasion, David Duke — Neo-Nazi, convicted felon and former Ku Klux Klan leader — pledged: “We are determined to take our country back. … We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. And that’s what we gotta do.”
With support for Trump from people with racist beliefs and violent histories like those of Spencer and Duke, it is difficult to explain why more than 80% of white evangelicals voted in 2016 for Trump, and a similar number say they will do so again if he is the Republican candidate in 2024. This loyalty is puzzling.
One possible explanation comes from Baptist professor and ethicist David Gushee, who suggests 10 reasons why white evangelicals were and are attracted to the former president. His tenth reason, what Gushee says is the most controversial, is that “white evangelicals were attracted to the thinly veiled white racism of Donald Trump.”
Perhaps this is true. If so, it is an embarrassment to other Christ-followers who condemn racist ideology while seeking to imitate the inclusive Jesus. Or, maybe many — and hopefully, most — of these white evangelical supporters of Trump are simply persuaded by utilitarianism and its popular expression that “the ends justify the means.”
It could be the case that these evangelical Trump voters are convinced their economic futures will be better under his leadership. Many likely will say they support him because they are against abortion and thus cannot vote for Democrats, whom they view as approving the “murder of babies.” Some may claim to feel safer in our dangerous world with Trump challenging and confronting China and others of our nation’s adversaries. Others perhaps admit they are afraid of the influx of immigrants and thus desire Trump’s wall and his tough border and immigration policies.
“Should Trump’s bigotry be so easily overlooked, excused or paradoxically celebrated?”
But do these “ends,” regardless of one’s political perspectives, really justify “means” that are associated with a man so blatantly unkind and grossly racist? Should Trump’s bigotry be so easily overlooked, excused or paradoxically celebrated?
Malcolm Nance is a globally recognized expert on extremism. In a recent book, he wrote:
The election of 2020 … revealed that (Trump’s) die-hard base … thought that they should give an openly racist, white-supremacist-loving, bigoted pathological liar another four years to carry out his promises to “make America great again.”… They wanted a man whose administration was proud of the fact that they villainized immigrants in a nation of immigrants. A man who openly ordered border guards to steal and cage children. A man who worked with some of America’s worst enemies as opposed to our traditional allies. A man who could be said to be personally responsible for the deaths of four hundred thousand of his own citizens through his incompetence and inaction during the pandemic.
Donald Trump’s bigotry is a defect in his character that, seemingly, will always be a part of who he is. In my opinion, he should never be elected to national office again.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.