Last week, Wake County Commissioner John Burns caused a controversy by saying something that shouldn't be controversial at all: the president of the United States is a white supremacist.
Burns's remarks on Twitter were prompted by President Trump's attacks on African-American NFL players kneeling for the national anthem ("sons of bitches"), a sharp contrast to his comments in August that there were some "very fine people" marching with white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.
"My main point," Burns says, "was that you can't treat American citizens exercising their right to protest worse than you treat mass murderers in your comments when you're president of the United States."
After The News & Observer reported on Burns's tweet, he got some angry emails and Facebook comments, though not as many as he expected. In fact, he says, the responses he received were more positive than negative. In itself, that says something. A public official calling the president of the United States a white supremacist should be a shocking act. But it wasn't. Here it was a one-day story, then most everyone moved on.
If anything, the events of the last week have only made Burns's case for him.
To describe Trump's initial reaction to the devastation that Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico as sluggish or neglectful only skims the surface. We knew where the storm was headed days out. We knew it would be catastrophic. We knew on the day it struck that the island was "destroyed," as government officials said. Power was gone. Potable water was nowhere to be found. Streets were impassable. Communications were impossible. Hospitals were shutting down.
And yet the president spent that weekend attacking black athletes who are peacefully protesting police violence against black Americans. He uttered barely a word about Puerto Rico, as millions of American citizens languished without access to food or water. He didn't call on Americans to send money or supplies. He didn't suspend the Jones Act—as he'd done after similar disasters in Texas and Florida—or dispatch the USNS Comfort, a naval hospital ship, until a week after the storm. By all appearances, he was utterly indifferent.
As The Washington Post reported, it wasn't until four full days after Maria's landfall that Trump started to understand the scope of the disaster, and only then when he saw the press criticizing his response. That night, he tweeted about Puerto Rico's "broken infrastructure & massive debt," as if Puerto Rico was somehow to blame.
By Friday, the president was patting himself on the back, telling reporters "it's been incredible, the results we've had with respect to loss of life." The death toll is officially sixteen, but, as the Miami Herald reported, experts say the real number is far higher, perhaps into the hundreds. Even the lieutenant general Trump put in charge of the mess has admitted the government hasn't committed enough troops or supplies.
So, after the mayor of San Juan, who is currently living in a shelter because her home was flooded, pointed out that this wasn't a "good news" story and that people were dying, Trump attacked her—and Puerto Ricans generally—rage-tweeting (from his New Jersey golf club) that she showed "such poor leadership ability" and that Puerto Ricans "want everything to be done for them."
This is another new low in American politics, though we've seen many new lows in the last nine months. You could chalk this up to Trump being a fragile narcissist—he is—but we're deluding ourselves if we pretend that his casual disregard for the plights of millions of Spanish-speaking American citizens isn't informed by something even more ominous.
After all, racism has been a defining aspect of Trump's political ascent, from his propagation of the birther conspiracy theory to his vicious attacks on Muslims and immigrants. Talk all you want about "economic insecurity." The fact remains that support for Trump is inextricably linked to white identity.
As Duke University political science professor Ashley Jardina wrote for The Washington Post's Monkey Page blog in August, "My own work, and that of others, has shown that levels of white identity are one of the strongest predictors of Trump support. ... White identifiers are more likely to think that the growth of racial or ethnic groups in the United States that are not white is having a negative effect on American culture."
We need to call this what it is. Trump is a white supremacist. He's in power because this white supremacism appeals to white people who feel like they're losing as America becomes more diverse. Saying that shouldn't be controversial. Rather, it's a self-evident fact.