A year ago, when Donald Trump first floated the idea of requiring Muslims to register with the government, there was a lot of debate about what he “really” meant. Because of how imprecise he is with his language, it can sometimes be hard to parse out what Trump means when he answers a fairly open-ended question — when he says “absolutely” to a question in an interview, what is he actually responding to — a database, a forced registration process, immigrants, or all Muslims, even the American ones? It can be unclear. And it is in that vagueness that Trump manages to evade any discussion of his character or his core beliefs.
On race the preciousness of this debate should not be lost on anyone. Trump is a man who can say something that is the “textbook definition of racism,” as Paul Ryan put it, but somehow is not, as a result, a racist person to his many fans and normalizers. His ideas can be discriminatory, he can advocate for racist policies, and his feuds (such as with Khizr and Ghazala Khan) can be “tinged” with racism, he can appoint proudly racist people to his cabinet and inner circle, and certainly the way he expresses these things can be so “careless and undisciplined” as to appear racist, but somehow that does not rise to the level of his being actually racist in the mind of the great commentariat.
The media itself has been a major player in this effort to not correctly identify Donald Trump as a patently racist person, just as they were a major player in so aggressively promoting his campaign it amounted to billions of dollars in free advertisement. But this effort to (literally) whitewash his words is concealing a basic, logical truth about him.
Consider one of his patently racist ideas: registering Muslims. At first this took the shape of a forcible registration into a database and would have been a requirement for everybody, even American citizens. The basic unconstitutionality of this plan didn’t matter, it got him a lot of attention. Later, Trump moderated his call somewhat to only discriminate against Muslims immigrants, and now, most recently it has been focused down to Muslims from countries with extremism. Of course this plan is not racist, he and his proxies say, for it is targeted at terrorism so therefore it cannot be based in racial animus (the fact that the United States, England, France, and Germany would qualify for this just as easily as Syria or Afghanistan is, apparently, either lost on his team or is built-in for expanding the program later).
If Donald Trump had an ounce of knowledge or cleverness about him, he would have couched his plan to register and harass Muslim immigrants in terms of rebuilding the NSEERS program, which ran from 2002–2011, and canceled for basically being useless compared to more specific monitoring based on actionable intelligence (one of his proxies only recently made the comparison, right after another floating the idea of internment camps). Part of that could, perhaps, be chalked up to Trump’s complete lack of interest in policy — the man who won the White House seems to have no interest in actually governing — but it also comes from his disinterest in ever hiding the racist intent behind his ideas. Had Trump an ounce of interest in the topic of increasing security through border screening, he would have been able to explain his ideas in non-racist ideas. But he doesn’t have that interest — he has the racist dislike of Muslims, and only later gets around to figuring out some sort of policy justification it.
There is a last issue to consider: Trump is politically savvy enough to know that his call to register and harass American Muslims would not pass any constitutional challenge. For very good reasons, we have baked into our fundamental documents protections for religion. That is why he had to, after seeing the enormous outcry to his original idea, narrow it to only be about immigrants. But immigrants do not commit most acts of terror — with very few exceptions the vast majority of terrorists who commit violence in the U.S. are citizens or legal permanent residents.
This distinction is important because it gets at Trump’s original justification for enacting racist policies against Muslims. When the majority of terrorists who strike in the U.S. are either citizens or legal residents, that means screening them at the border won’t stop much, if any, terrorists attacks from happening. It is a problem mismatched to the solution — more security theater to create the illusion of safeness without actually making anything safer.
But even that is treating his idea with far too much dignity. Getting lost in what passes for policy details is a great way to be distracted from the racial animus behind them. The point isn’t the policy — Trump doesn’t have policies — the point is the racism. The details are irrelevant.
This hand waving is going to continue so long as Trump is in office. The specific details will be tweaked here and there in response to public outcry but most of those changes will be minimal. Like all authoritarians, President Trump wants to maintain the pretense of law and order, even as he works actively to undermine the rule of law (by seeking a loophole around federal laws that prohibit nepotism). And like all authoritarians he must have a foreign “other” to redirect people’s angst so they do not focus on him too much — in this case, Muslims.
Authoritarians work through confusion: for Trump, he regularly employs a Gish Gallop of madness that overwhelms any rebuttal distracts from the core truth of their abuse of power. That is why any specific idea of his proposed attacks on Muslims will change by the day, by the person being interviewed, even by his mood. What never changes is his intent. Keep that intent in mind as he tries to wiggle ideas into public acceptance: you will always find, underneath it, that same festering core that was in the original idea.