The U.S. is just a few months away from the end of Donald Trump's first — and maybe his last — term as president of the United States. And while it's unclear how this election will turn out, it is clear that the past four years have been ... different from past presidencies.
People have talked about Trump breaking norms, especially when it comes to talking about race, going as far as to say that he's the "most racist president in modern history." There are plenty of things you could point at to augment that argument: embracing birtherism, referring to African nations as "shithole countries," telling congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from, calling Mexican immigrants "rapists," refusing to denounce white supremacists during a presidential debate and so on.
But when it comes to calling Trump the most racist president, it's tough to make such a definitive characterization. After all, racism was baked into the founding of the United States, a country built on the genocide of Native American people and slavery; 12 of the first 18 presidents actually owned slaves.
So on this week's episode, we ask: Is Trump the most racist president in the history of the country? How do you even go about measuring such a thing? (And just to be clear, when we say racist, we're not talking about what Trump or any former president believes in his heart of hearts; as we've discussed before, that rubric is a trap. We're talking about using rhetoric and creating policies that marginalize people of color.)
To help us answer those questions, we talked to Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University. He, like many other people we talked to for this episode, shied away from an easy yes-or-no answer — and instead homed in on a few defining moments in Trump's presidency and how they compare with those of previous Oval Office residents. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
We've heard over the past four years that Donald Trump is an exceptional figure in a lot of ways. People describe him as violating political norms in a really dramatic fashion, especially with regards to his racism or the racist behavior that is ascribed to him. Do you think that he is exceptional in that regard?
I do think he's exceptional in many ways. At the same time, I think he's totally rooted in the politics of the moment. If you want to take, for example, his statements about race, including during the first debate, when he wouldn't back down on the issue of white power and the Proud Boys — that's a pretty stunning thing to do. That is not to say that there haven't been presidents who weren't profoundly racist. Obviously, before the Civil War, presidents stood in favor of slavery. Before the 1960s, presidents opposed civil rights. But today, in 2020, for someone to be so defiant on the issue of white power, that's exceptional.
But just because a president is exceptional doesn't mean they come out of nowhere, and I think that's an important way to think about President Trump. So, for example, President Trump has expressed and supported very hard-line views on immigration since the very start of his presidency, in his rhetoric and his executive policies. In what he's called upon for Congress, he's trying to shift American politics very far to the right on how we think of having immigrants in this country and who we let in. That's not a creation of Donald Trump. The Republican Party since the 1990s has moved in a very sharp direction to the right on this issue. President George W. Bush, who was liberal on immigration, found that he had very little support from his own party to try to pass some kind of reform that would allow those who were here to stay in the country.
In terms of the way he campaigns, President Trump is pretty notorious for saying anything about his opponents, for trying to smear them and paint them as radicals who seek to endanger the country. The way he does it is pretty striking and is certainly exceptional in how far he'll go. But we've seen other presidents do stuff like this, like President George H.W. Bush.
So you're saying that Trump is not unique — but has he upped the ante on race?
He is upping the ante, and he is saying the silent part out loud, which matters. By saying it out loud, he grants it more legitimacy, and he gives it presidential weight in a way that's different.
Since the 1960s, lots of presidents have played to the racial backlash in the United States. Richard Nixon ran a whole campaign in 1968 about "law and order," which was basically a coded way to talk about, in his perspective, what radical civil rights organizations were doing to the health of the country. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan constantly spoke about "welfare queens" and characterized poverty as an African American issue and was criticized rightly for using that kind of rhetoric and tapping into this kind of anger and anxiety in white America.
But Donald Trump just says it out loud — he's very direct. And I'm not surprised when I hear it, because I think this has been a much bigger part of Republican politics than people have acknowledged. And I'm not surprised, because he's been doing this since he first ran.
When we were telling you about this episode, you told us that in comparing presidents to Trump, we should really be looking at post-bellum presidents — not presidents from the Civil War to the beginning of the nation. Why is that?
Sometimes I listen to people debate this question, and there's always a response for whatever words President Trump uses or whatever signals that he sends: Look at presidents before the Civil War. They supported, by and large, the institution of slavery many times. What could be worse than that? And that is absolutely true. So I think that comparison gets thin very quickly. We are not in that period. And so I think it's important to measure what President Trump does based on where we are today. When you do these long comparisons, you miss and lose perspective on why his statements are so dangerous and so off-center from what we should expect in this period.
So would we be on safer ground comparing, say, Trump to Nixon?
Yeah. The reason this kind of conversation works is that you're talking about presidents since the civil rights revolution, and you're talking about presidents who you could argue are in the modern era of American politics. I think there are a lot of similarities. Nixon certainly liked to use presidential power aggressively. Nixon liked to capitalize on the backlash that had formed against civil rights — that's what he did with his law-and-order rhetoric. And Nixon was someone who could just be incredibly rough with his opponents — from creating an enemies list of people who were out to get him, in his mind, to the way that he treated people close to him.
What are the differences, though? Nixon still understood, at some level, the importance of governing. He was still committed to the idea that the job of a president was to preside and was to try to work out deals with Congress on problems of the day. I think Trump throws a lot of that out the window. I think he is not as concerned with hiding some of his bad behavior. He'll do it out in the open. He's not concerned about using code words and sending signals. He'll just say very clearly what he feels like on these very divisive issues and even on presidential power.
Nixon was still within a world of constraints and guardrails. And I think what we're seeing now is that those are gone, and that's what sends some people into a very concerned state.
In terms of personality, I'd say that some presidents are definitely more user-friendly than others. But Trump is notorious for his brashness and his politically incorrect and racist language. Have we ever had another president in recent memory get anywhere near to that?
No, not in recent memory. People sometimes talk, for example, about Lyndon Johnson's language behind the scenes. If you listen to private tapes of him talking to different politicians, he often did use very racist language. Richard Nixon famously had just a horrible vocabulary about almost every social group.
So lots of presidents have used words that are not nice or openly racist in private, and lots of presidents have not been nice people. Johnson is an example of someone who could be pretty rough and ruthless, even with people who worked for him and supported him. Bill Clinton famously had a temper that could come out at any moment, and people didn't like really being in the crossfire. But that's different from what people are talking about with President Trump. In his case, it's his use of all that language in 2020 rather than 1964, right out in the public on his Twitter feed, in a presidential debate or at his rallies. It's also about the way he treats people, people he fires within his administration, people who oppose him right out in the open.
There's often a difference in how we think about presidents and how they actually behave. So does Trump's reputation actually match his record, or are we maybe looking at this the wrong way?
That's a good question. And I think it is important to remember when we look at presidential history for sure, there are lots of horrible things. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the internment of Japanese Americans is one of the biggest examples of that. Here's a president who saves the country from the worst economic crisis and helps lead the nation in this war against fascism successfully, but it's hard to get around how bad internment was. John F. Kennedy is remembered as someone who came out in favor of the civil rights movement. But until 1963, his record was anything but. He was very resistant to get behind this cause because he was fearful about what it would do to him politically and to the coalition he was building.
I think it's important, once the Trump presidency is over, that we actually look at the question you're asking: How much does the rhetoric match the policy? I think there's some areas you'll see the match is pretty clean. For example, in terms of the rhetoric of anti-immigration, he's taking a lot of steps since the refugee ban that follow through on exactly what he wanted to do.
And then there are ways in which the rhetoric is what matters. Presidential rhetoric is so important. It's not a disconnect from the real record. What a president says is often one of the things that has the biggest impact on our country. And I think that Twitter feed is something that we're going to be looking at in the presidential archives. The kinds of words he legitimated and normalized will be part of the record. And then there's other areas where it's fair to ask historians once we have that record to see. Are there areas of disconnect between some of the things he said, which were mostly reactionary, and what he actually did in terms of policy? I don't know what those would be yet. But I think that's something we should ask of any president.
To hear more about how President Trump's rhetoric has matched his policy and how that compares with previous presidencies, listen to this week's Code Switch episode wherever you get your podcasts, including NPR One, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and RSS.