GENE DEMBY, HOST:
What's good, y'all? All right, before we get started this week, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to take out your cellphone or your laptop or whatever device you're using to listen to us right now and go to npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch and sign up for the CODE SWITCH newsletter. It's where we talk about what we're reading and what we're listening to, what we're watching and what we're arguing about with each other.
This week, I'm on newsletter duty. And I'm trying to pull together some thoughts on John McCain and what his life and his career tells us about this idea around civility in racial discourse in mainstream American politics. If that sounds interesting to you - and I hope it does - sign up at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.
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DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is out this week on a much-needed vacation. Here we are again talking about President Trump and racism. I know. I know. I know. I know. This discussion comes amid a busy and chaotic few weeks for the Trump White House. But really, ain't they all, really?
President Trump's former lawyer pleaded guilty to charges stemming from using campaign funds to pay off a woman who allegedly had an affair with the president. Then his campaign chair was convicted on charges of tax fraud and bank fraud. And while the news cycle was just dominated by all of this, the White House was talking about, quote, "permanent separations."
To be clear, President Trump wasn't talking about the administration's policy of separating migrants from their children at the border. He was talking about American citizens allegedly killed by people who were in the country illegally. President Trump went on Twitter to talk about Mollie Tibbetts, a white woman from Iowa who had gone missing in July and whose body was found last week.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family. A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We need our border laws changed. We need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren't going to do it.
DEMBY: The White House's Twitter account, for good measure, posted a video of people who said they, too, had had family members killed by undocumented immigrants. There was a lot of pushback. People saw the linking of these murders and illegal immigration as a racist dog whistle, some people even comparing it to those infamous Willie Horton campaign ads from the 1988 presidential election.
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UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.
DEMBY: And if you're unfamiliar with those ads, there's an image of a black man, of Willie Horton's face, as all that is being said. Anyway, Trump wasn't done. The president then tweeted out a popular and untrue talking point that's widely propagated among the white supremacist right, that there was large-scale killings of white farmers in South Africa and that that country's government was seizing the land of those farmers.
And all this comes just a week after Omarosa Manigault Newman went on TV to talk about her new book. She's a former adviser in the Trump White House, and she was a contestant on "The Apprentice". So she's known Donald Trump for a long time. And she went on NBC's "Meet The Press" to say that there is a recording of President Trump using the word - that word - the word that's supposed to be the bright line that even self-avowed bigots supposedly know not to say in polite company - nigger.
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OMAROSA MANIGAULT NEWMAN: I had an opportunity to go out in Los Angeles and sit down with the person who actually has a copy of the tape. And I heard his voice as clear as you and I are sitting here.
CHUCK TODD: You have heard the tape...
MANIGAULT NEWMAN: I have heard the tape.
TODD: ...Since publication of this book?
MANIGAULT NEWMAN: Absolutely.
TODD: So you know it exists.
MANIGAULT NEWMAN: And I know it exists. And what I regret is that...
DEMBY: Rumors about this tape have been floating around for a while. And after this appearance on "Meet The Press," Manigault Newman actually released her own tape of what she said were Trump advisers trying to figure out how they would spin the release of this tape - again, should it exist. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked by reporters about all this, naturally. And she said that she could not say for sure that there was not a tape floating around of President Trump saying nigger.
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KRISTEN WELKER: Can you stand at the podium and guarantee the American people they'll never hear Donald Trump utter the N-word on a recording in any context?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I can't guarantee anything. But I can tell you that the president addressed this question directly. I can tell you that I've never heard it.
DEMBY: But here's the thing, y'all. Like, you got to wonder if this alleged tape was the smoking gun that it was being treated as. Hasn't the president of the United States already called immigrants from Central America and Mexico animals and rapists? Wasn't he sued by the federal government in the 1970s when he was a landlord for refusing to rent to black people? Shithole countries, good people on both sides, now these fringe, unfounded theories about white South African farmers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
A lot of people are wondering, like, what exactly would a tape of Donald Trump saying nigger illuminate that we don't already know? To dig in all of this, to unpack all of this, we've tagged in a friend of the pod. I mean, he's not really a play cousin because he's, like, is actual family. It's Matt Thompson. He's the executive editor of The Atlantic. He actually used to be at NPR. He hired Shereen and me. And he has a piece over at The Atlantic called "If Trump Said The N-Word." And we're going to work all this out and talk all this out after the break.
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DEMBY: Gene - just Gene - CODE SWITCH.
Matt Thompson, welcome back to the CODE SWITCH dupe (ph).
MATT THOMPSON: Thank you so much. It's always great to talk to you.
DEMBY: All right, Matt. So with all this happening, you know, this last couple of weeks, with all that we know about Trump's rhetoric and his history, people have been trying to game out, what do we mean if this tape does exist, right? And you wrote a piece in The Atlantic called "If Trump Said The N-word." So let's say he did say this on tape, that we have proof that he said this, does it even matter?
THOMPSON: Yes. My argument is that, yes, it matters. It matters because the way that society reacts to it matters. There are likely to be a number of different reactions to the president using the N-word on tape. I think the easiest to anticipate is that the president being heard using this term would spur probably some litigation over the use and how offensive it is and whether it marks the crossing of an inviolable boundary or whether the usage is more ambiguous.
We always have a tendency whenever there's a controversy over some celebrity getting heard or caught using the N-word in some context, there's always a controversy over whether the usage is quote, unquote, "allowed" - as though there's a regulatory body governing the deployment of this particular term. If the president were heard using the word, the president's usage of it, no matter what in our ability to litigate that usage, would weaken the taboo on using the word.
The very fact that we're kind of arguing over whether it was OK that the president said it or the context in which he said it or whether or not there were mitigating circumstances governing its use would be in itself an erosion of that taboo.
DEMBY: So we know - we can probably safely anticipate that that's going to be a thing that happens, should this exist, should this actually come to be, that that...
DEMBY: ...Reaction is going to happen. What are the other reactions?
THOMPSON: So the second group are the people for whom it is a clear crossing of an inviolable barrier and would probably take to the streets to make sure that the president suffered some political consequences. And then I think there would be the people who watch this event kind of wash over them. They either hear the tape or they know the tape exists or maybe they have already started tuning out the news. And they're just stunned by it, saddened, repulsed. They may take some small action.
But for the most part, their reaction to it and their reaction to one another as they watch the consequences that do and don't unfold from that action, they would be stuck in what I call in the piece this, quote, unquote, "constant state of feverish numbness," this sense as they've looked around them and they've seen norm after norm crumble and Americans espousing positions that they don't recognize.
They won't know what to do exactly. And so they will just kind of watch this take shape. And they'll watch the reactions to them unfold and society will have changed. And for the most part, they will be stunned observers of that change.
DEMBY: And that numbness, that would also contribute to the weakening of the prohibition around this word.
THOMPSON: Yes. Yeah. I do think that the greater the sense, in general, that norms that we have held to be inviolable are actually pretty weak and are dependent on a bunch of people doing a lot of things that they may not be incentivized to do. I think that the more Americans feel that, the less engaged they're inclined to be in the democratic process. And I think that that is a very real and significant effect. I do think that that's how the norms collapse, ultimately. People see them broken and they feel disempowered to do anything about that.
DEMBY: You say that when people are asking whether it matters, what they're actually asking is what would happen.
DEMBY: But you're saying that things have happened, and this - we've seen this sort of chipping away at conventions and norms.
THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that - certainly in our coverage at The Atlantic - we've been closely attuned to has been the spread of white supremacist and white nationalist messages into formerly mainstream contexts where they might have been less welcome. I mean, certainly there are expressions that come from the office of the president, the expressions that come from the White House that overlap in substantial ways with messages that have come from white nationalist groups or groups that have expressed sympathies with that position.
DEMBY: Earlier, we talked about, you know, Trump's signal boosting this myth about large-scale killings of South African farmers.
THOMPSON: Absolutely. And then there are messages about immigrants. You know, we've noted some of the dehumanizing language that has come out of the White House with respect to immigrants, even naturalized citizens. I think each one of those moments, even when we're asking the question - you know, does it sound like the White House is expressing a viewpoint that's in line with that of white nationalists or white supremacists? - every one of those moments is a movement of society's boundaries around what's considered mainstream speech.
DEMBY: I mean, it's funny to sort of think about this because there has always been this fragile consensus, this fragile post-civil-rights-movement consensus around a lot of these norms, and they've sort of fallen away in the last couple of years.
DEMBY: And so you're saying that the consequences that people are anticipating is some sort of repercussions for Trump - right? - or repercussions...
DEMBY: ...For Trump saying this, but it seems like what you're saying is the actual consequences are in the opposite direction - right? - that there's just more room for that kind of rhetoric to exist.
THOMPSON: Yes. There are all of these milestones or boundaries that I think, in political life, are just mostly abstract, like questions like can the president pardon himself? Is this question that has been a kind of academic, philosophical question for a long time and, all of a sudden, is current. It feels relevant (laughter). It feels timely - urgent, even, at times - the answer to that question. And when you look closely enough at those things, you might have assumed, three years ago, I think, it would have been fair, natural to assume that there is a clear answer - yes or no - to a question like that. Can the president pardon himself?
I think the more that the boundary of what's considered acceptable has shifted or enlarged, the more we've come to realize that those lines - questions like that - that seem to have a straightforward, yes-or-no answer actually resolve to something much blurrier and weirder. It's not yes or no, the president can pardon himself, it's if the president tried to pardon himself, then, there would be a number of ramifications.
What would happen is not a clear, binary line. There would not be a regulatory body that, you know, calls down a judgment from on high that says here are all the consequences for all of the individuals involved in this act. What would happen instead is there would be a number of different effects that would scatter off in every different direction. The Supreme Court would have to consider things. Their considerations would happen in the context of a big political fight as people staked out different positions on the matter.
I think a similar thing would happen around the use of the N word - the president's use of saying this taboo word.
DEMBY: And it seems like what happens whenever anyone uses that word - right? - like, anyone, especially someone who is not black - right? - uses that...
DEMBY: ...Word, that these are the general set of ramifications that might exist, right? There's going to be pushback. There's going to be some sort of, like, hedging about what that - what it means that this person said it.
I'm thinking of Michael Richards. Remember this? Michael Richards was...
DEMBY: ...Being heckled from the stage. He's a stand-up comedian. He was on "Seinfeld." He literally gets on stage, I mean, as he's being heckled, and he says - he says, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. And he said something like back in the day, we would have strung you up from a tree, right? And immediately, there was this - Jerry Seinfeld, like, was on David Letterman a couple months later sort of defending his friend, saying he's not racist as if - as if (laughter) anyone who was not racist would ever string together that series of thoughts out loud.
THOMPSON: Right. Yes.
DEMBY: But that - that's what - that's what started to happen. It's not this bright line in which this is the automatic response, that everyone pushes back, that there's, like, universal opprobrium. That almost, I guess, is never the case.
THOMPSON: Right. I think that's - I think that's exactly it.
DEMBY: There are people who say that Trump says racially inflammatory and divisive things when there's, like, negative things happening in the news cycle, he says these things to sort of change the narrative for a little bit, right? And people ask, is Trump doing this because he's a bigot, or is he doing this because he's a cynic and it's just part of a strategy, or is it some fusion of both? And I'm curious, like, in the conversation about consequences, does intent matter?
THOMPSON: I would say it matters a whole lot less than a whole lot of other things (laughter) I guess. I think a lot of - a lot of people think that racism is a matter of kind of malicious and malevolent actions taken by people. Whereas, the more meaningful manifestations of racism tend to be much more systemic or systematic. They are things that are often quite invisible.
DEMBY: Right. Well, since we're talking about language here and the way that racism works, a long time ago, you and I were editing a piece about the word racism. Do you remember this?
DEMBY: It was a Word Watch piece for the CODE SWITCH blog. And it turned out that the oldest recorded usage of the word racism in the Oxford English Dictionary was by this dude named Richard Henry Pratt. He was decrying the evils of racism at the turn of the 20th century even as he was setting up the Indian boarding schools, as they called them, that would become this mechanism for ethnic cleansing of indigenous people in all these different ways.
DEMBY: And during that edit, you've - you turned to during that edit and said, I don't think CODE SWITCH should use the word racism in our reporting. Do you remember the - do you remember that?
THOMPSON: (Laughter) I do.
DEMBY: We had like a three-hour argument about this.
THOMPSON: I remember this.
DEMBY: It was a Friday afternoon. I distinctly remember we had to look through our argument about it. Do you remember your logic there about the word racism and why we should or shouldn't use it in our reporting?
THOMPSON: Yes. I mean, I think my logic was in part that I think a lot of people, when they hear that word, they collapse these two definitions of it - the sort of performed or expressed racism and systemic racism - that the two things get mixed together for people in a way that, like, they come to seem equally weighted. And, in fact, it's easy to neglect the latter in favor of the former.
DEMBY: If I remember correctly, your argument was that, like, using the word racism for something like mass incarceration and for something like a microaggression is not wrong, but it is imprecise.
THOMPSON: Right. And I actually think - I don't remember whether or not my position was that racism itself (laughter) was not that useful as a word or racist.
THOMPSON: The "Yo, Is This Racist" kind of (laughter)...
THOMPSON: ...Kind of heuristic of racism. Or is this person a racist? That just seemed so binary when a lot of people, who would it be difficult through their conduct or behavior to tag as such, may, in fact, be, you know, part and parcel of the machinery of racism. That the word even, the binariness (ph) of it, that you can be a racist or not a racist, it implies a degree of ease (laughter) with diagnosing racism that I don't think actually exists in reality.
DEMBY: Matt Thompson is the executive editor of The Atlantic and one of the architects of CODE SWITCH. Thank you, Matt. Appreciate you, man.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Gene. Likewise.
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DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. You should email us at email@example.com. You can always send us your burning questions about race in America with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you find your podcasts. Oh, and if you listen on iTunes, please leave us a review, it helps people find the pod.
This episode was produced and edited by Leah Donnella and Sami Yenigun with help from Steve Drummond. Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kat Chow and my partner in crime, the inimitable Shereen Marisol Meraji. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.
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