Remember that scene in literally every superhero origin story, when the superhero person did some super shit in public for the first time, and most people who witnessed it were like, “Whoa!!! That was some super shit! Who knew we had super people here?” (And then a few are like, “Well actually what just happened can be explained as a naturally occurring anomaly and there’s nothing super here at all.”) But the people actually watching the movie were like, “Duh!” because we knew he was super the entire time? That’s kinda how it feels watching white people react to President Trump doing or saying a racist thing now.
He’s been a verified public racist for 46 years. (Basically, since Melania Trump was 3 years old.) He became a viable political figure because of a racist birther campaign, ran a racist campaign with a racist slogan, courted racists as his base, and was elected because America either wanted a racist president or didn’t quite mind having one (Which is the same thing!) All things considered, his racism is his most vital characteristic. If Donald Trump was a scoop of ice cream instead of a (vaguely) human being, his racism would be the milk.
Unfortunately, he is not that special.
Trump’s racism is only unique if you add caveats and qualifiers. He is totally, definitely, absolutely the most racist president America has had since 2016. I won’t even try to debate that. But if ranking racist American presidents, he barely cracks the top 20. This is America, you know? Twelve presidents owned slaves. Eight owned slaves while they were president, which is like...being the president of the United States of America while also owning human beings. There’s no analogy that works here. Even if we work backward from the 21st century, you can attach a phrase or two to each president to begin to synopsize their racism. Baby Bush? Katrina. Clinton? “Superpredators.” Bush senior? Willie Horton. Reagan? “Welfare queen.” Carter? “Ethnic Purity.” The list ends at George Washington, which is also where it begins.
“But if everyone is racist, no one is racist,” I can feel you thinking if you are a stupid person. Maybe you are just stupid and not racist. Maybe you also say things like “But if everyone in the NBA is good at basketball, then no one is good at basketball.” But I’ll play along. You’re half right! Every white American is at least a little racist. Because they’re American. And America is racist.
Some are big racists, some are small racists. Some are short racists, some are tall racists. But they all place somewhere on the racist spectrum. If this isn’t helpful, think of racism like it’s lactose intolerance. Some people don’t really feel any effects of it unless they drink a whole-ass gallon of milk. Others need to chase a teaspoon of milk with Lactaid or their stomachs will explode. This is an awkward—and probably aggressively unhelpful—analogy, but the point is that positioning Donald Trump as a uniquely racist American president can only happen if you believe he’s the first American president. Even the only black American president wasn’t immune to anti-blackness, as President Obama had (and still has) a tendency to use anti-black tropes to scold when addressing black audiences.
Articulating Trump’s lack of uniqueness isn’t an excuse for his behavior. Instead, it’s a reminder of the fallacy and the danger of labeling it unique—which is what happens when we want to pretend we all ain’t damaged fruit from a sick tree. He isn’t a singular ghoul as much as he’s a goulash—a jumble of very familiar (and very American) fears, dog-whistles, anxieties, biases, and hates mashed together. Which, of course, is why the congresswomen targeted by Trump vex him (and Nancy Pelosi) so. Instead of continuing to pretend the tree ain’t sick, they want to kill it with fire.
And if you think I’m wrong, that America and Americans ain’t as racist as I claim us to be, then drink a milkshake and tell me what happens next. (OK. I’ll admit the milk/milkshake/lactose analogy thing never quite curled over. I think I just want some ice cream.)