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It can be easy to lose perspective, amid the upheavals of the news cycle, particularly in a week like this. So it’s worth summoning a little historical perspective on the man who lost the election by three million votes and became our president.
I won’t try to speculate on what, exactly, Fred Trump taught his son about race relations. We know that the senior Trump attended a rally of the Ku Klux Klan. We know that he was later sued by the federal government for racially discriminatory practices, and that his son Donald, who revered him, would later face the same charges. But again: we can’t know what passed between father and son.
One thing we do know about Donald Trump is that his first foray into civic activism took place in 1989. It was provoked by an incident in which a white woman, an investment banker, was raped and severely assaulted while jogging through Central Park at night.
A number of teenagers had been carousing in the park and police quickly developed a theory that five of them (the Central Park Five) had committed the crime. The suspects, four African Americans and one Hispanic, confessed after lengthy police interrogations.
The case became a tabloid sensation. Two weeks after the arrests, Donald Trump took out full-page ads in the city’s four major dailies, topped by two giant headlines:
BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.
BRING BACK OUR POLICE!
What has happened to our city over the past ten years? What has happened to law and order…What has happened to the respect for authority? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it…. Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.
The response was immediate. One woman suggested, on live television, that the suspects be castrated. Others, such as Pat Buchanan, called for them to be hanged in Central Park by June 1.
As a reminder: they had yet to be tried.
Although no physical evidence linked them to the crime, the Central Park Five were convicted on the basis of their police confessions. In 2002, a judge vacated the guilty verdicts, after DNA evidence exonerated them, and identified the actual perpetrator, a serial rapist who confessed to the crime and provided prosecutors with precise details of how he carried it out.
The people who ardently believe this president can make America great again revealed themselves in Charlottesville. The time has come for the rest of us to reveal ourselves.
Trump refused to accept the exoneration and scoffed at the notion that he should apologize to the Central Park Five. He condemned the city’s 2014 decision to compensate the five men for their suffering. “I think people are tired of politically correct. I just attacked the Central Park Five settlement. Who’s going to do that?”
This story tells you everything you need to know about Trump, about the manner in which white racial panic has always been central to his appeal. You can draw a straight line between this episode and his gas-lighting denunciation of Mexican rapists, his travel ban on Muslim, his endorsement of brutalizing the protestors at his rallies, and on and on.
The events of this week have merely confirmed his fear and vilification of people with dark skin and his reflexive defense of people with white skin. He thinks it’s possible for “good people” to congregate and march with armed Nazis because … he’s been doing so for years.
We need to stop asking who Trump is. He’s told us over and over. The very question is a dead-end and a dodge at this point. The question redounds to us: who are we?
To those who reluctantly supported Trump, who stomached the more toxic aspects of his white male privilege in the hopes that he would restore jobs and pride: who are you?
To the millions upon millions who cynically tuned out “politics” and failed to vote: who are you?
To the GOP leaders and donors who have tolerated Trump in pursuit of deregulation and tax cuts: who are you?
To the wishful opponents of Trump who believe mounting a Twitter campaign, or circulating a mocking video, will be enough to pry him from the Oval Office: who are you?
Moral progress is inconvenient, even dangerous at times. The people who ardently believe this president can make America great again revealed themselves in Charlottesville.
The time has come for the rest of us to reveal ourselves.