Politics & Policy

Yes, There Is an Innocent Explanation for Trump’s Initial Non-Disavowal of the KKK

(Bill Pugliano/Getty)

Until I read Jonah’s scarifying philippic earlier today, I’d been wondering why no one — or no one I had found on the Internet — had examined in depth, let alone solved, the mystery of what Donald Trump meant by his remarks to Jake Tapper about the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, and white supremacists last Sunday. One powerful reason for this lack of interest is our old friend — confirmation bias. Most people directly concerned, such as Trump’s rivals, their supporters, the Democrats, Trump’s own supporters, and indeed the KKK immediately conceived their own explanations of Trump’s meaning and didn’t want them disturbed by any contrary evidence or more persuasive explanation. Jonah and I doubtless have our own confirmation biases: His is about Trump’s character; mine is about “gotcha” rhetoric. You can try to unearth Jonah’s in his writing; mine you can dissect as you continue reading (if indeed you do.) As to everyone else, the problem with their incuriosity is that Trump’s interview is a genuine oddity and needs explanation.

Take the insinuation that Trump is either a white supremacist (a.k.a. Nazi) himself or was sending out a high-pitched “dog whistle” of sympathy to win over their votes. That’s quite a grave charge, but it is supported by almost no evidence. One supposed proof was that, according to his first wife, Trump kept a book of speeches by Hitler “near” his bed. But some of the same witnesses also claim that Trump read only those books that he had written himself. So, unless we are about to observe a publishing sensation, the “secret Klansman” theory should probably be retired.

For what it’s worth, it’s also inconsistent with the leading conservative explanation of Trump’s private beliefs on public issues. This is that he’s always been a liberal and is running for the GOP presidential nomination only because he thought, like everyone else until recently, that Hillary Clinton had the nomination sewn up. Now, there’s a great deal of evidence for the “secret liberal” theory of Trump, not least his own words over many years and photographs of him yukking it up with the Clintons. But the inconsistency here is excessive. One can be a Nazi or a liberal — but not both; and a liberal is unlikely to have any qualms about disavowing the Klan. So if the conservative theory of Trump’s liberalism is correct, he couldn’t have been expressing sympathy for white supremacy in his odd remarks.

So why did Trump thrice refuse to disavow Duke, the KKK, white supremacists, etc.?

Nor does my own theory of Trump as an opportunist prove useful here. In the abstract, of course, an opportunist might be a Nazi in one political environment, a liberal in another, and a conservative in a third. We could determine which one quite easily by holding up our index finger to check which way the wind was blowing. Apply that insight to this case: Trump is running for office in the good ol’ USA in 2016. In this environment an opportunist might well be tempted to court racist constituencies such as the Black Lives Matter movement, as several Democratic candidates have done. But not even the wildest political consultant (i.e., Roger Stone) would make a case for wooing the Hitler demographic. Except in political thrillers, white supremacists are small in numbers, despised, poor, unable to help politically, but capable of inflicting great damage on anyone they supports. An opportunist would be positively keen to disavow the Klan, Hitler, white supremacists, the KKK, and any other weirdo racist organization that includes words such as “Aryan” in its title. Indeed, he would run campaign ads doing so.

So why did Trump thrice refuse to disavow Duke, the KKK, white supremacists, etc.? It makes no sense politically. It makes no sense personally either. He had already disavowed them some years before, and some days before, and he has disavowed them since. So are his words capable of some other interpretation? Here’s the full transcript:

TAPPER: I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League, which this week called on you to publicly condemn unequivocally the racism of former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who recently said that voting against you at this point would be treason to your heritage.

Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?

TRUMP: Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. Okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.

I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.

TAPPER: But I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is, even if you don’t know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you. Would you just say unequivocally you condemn them and you don’t want their support?

TRUMP: Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don’t know what group you’re talking about.

You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I would have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them. And, certainly, I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong.

TAPPER: The Ku Klux Klan?

TRUMP: But you may have groups in there that are totally fine, and it would be very unfair. So, give me a list of the groups, and I will let you know.

TAPPER: Okay. I mean, I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here, but . . . 

TRUMP: I don’t know any — honestly, I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I have ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him.

TAPPER: All right.

Now, if you interpret this to be a kind of weaselly refusal to condemn the KKK, etc., as most critics have done, then it still needs some kind of explanation. What motives could he have for this refusal? As we have observed, no-one has come up with a credible explanation.

#share#The alternative possibility is that it wasn’t such a refusal at all but a misunderstanding. Trump argues this, saying that he couldn’t hear the questions properly because of a defective ear-piece and that his replies show that he was struggling to understand what Jake Tapper was getting at. Media critics have dismissed this on the grounds that he wasn’t fiddling with his earpiece throughout (and because they don’t want to hear an innocent explanation.) Only Trump knows the truth of this for certain. The arguments of his critics that he could hear well enough to refer to Duke, etc., in his replies don’t deal with the possibility that he could hear imperfectly — which on live television is potentially disastrous. Leave that possibility aside, however, and concede that he could hear and was responding uneasily because he knew he was about to take a risk in what he said.

The alternative possibility is that it wasn’t such a refusal at all but a misunderstanding.

For I will confess to wondering if something was wrong as I watched the interview. Trump seemed uneasy and rambling, wanting to make a point but not quite finding the right words to do so, and going round in circles as a result. Was he nervously calculating a “dog whistle” pitch to the “Hitler demographic” I dismissed above? Again, that’s possible, but is it in any serious way likely? Even if we concede that Trump would say almost anything to get elected, there is no way that pitching appeals to the KKK and David Duke would help him do so. I believe this constituency is small and marginalized (see above.) Suppose that it’s larger than I think, however; it would still be vastly smaller than the constituency of people likely to be revolted and alarmed by such a dog whistle. Moreover, it’s an odd kind of dog whistle that is picked up not by its intended recipients but by their (and the sender’s) passionate opponents. The reaction to this incident, moreover, seems to confirm my skepticism on these points.

My own interpretation of Trumps’s remarks is that he was irritated by the question, thought that he was being accused of something, was wondering how to deal with the accusation on the fly, and responded in an indignant way. Look at the transcript again. Could it be read as conveying this response:

‘Why are you asking me this question? I don’t know all these people. I have nothing to do with them. I don’t know all their views. And I’m not going to be forced into wholesale condemnations of people I may know little or nothing about.’

So why would Trump be irritated? Well, the question may not have been meant as an accusation — Tapper is one of the most fair-minded broadcasters in the manstream media — but it works as one. It arouses a suspicion of links between the interviewee and the groups he is asked to disavow. I recall (from a fallible memory) a similar exchange more than 30 years ago in a London television studio between David Frost and the Tory politician, Enoch Powell, shortly after Powell had made a now-famous speech calling for tighter immigration controls.

Three times an indignant Frost, working himself into a greater passion each time, asked Powell if he would dissociate himself from the National Front (a precursor of the neo-fascist British National Party.)

Three times Powell replied simply: “No.”

Thinking he was about to score a scoop that would drive Powell from public life, Frost thunderingly asked: “Why on earth not?”

“Because I have never been associated with the National Front,” replied Powell.

All that Trump can hope for is that the incident will gradually fade into insignificance.

That was the Perfect Squelch that Donald Trump manifestly failed to achieve last Sunday. And as a result the tag “Thrice failed to disavow the KKK” will be hung around his neck. He will be condemned to wear it forever as Mrs. Thatcher was condemned, also wrongly, to wear a similar label that read “There is no such thing as society.” All that Trump can hope for is that the incident will gradually fade into insignificance as later controversies overshadow and then replace it. On the evidence before the court, however, he did not refuse to disavow the KKK. He merely objected to being asked to do so when he had never been associated with it.

#related#That doesn’t mean that he’s an innocent man in all respects. My own judgment, as a non-voting legal permanent resident, is that he is a high-risk candidate who is threatened more by non-political scandals such as Trump University than by his political missteps. He may well explode in a shower of writs during the campaign. Anyone who is thinking of supporting him, as many evidently are, should prudently cast a cold eye on his business record before making a full commitment. But the same cold eye should be cast on his rivals too, in particular Marco Rubio, whose sustained campaign of deception on immigration toward his Republican and conservative allies is a greater political sin than any of Trump’s erratic eruptions. Of the other remaining candidates, all decent people, I would cast my imaginary vote for Ted Cruz who is rare among Republican leaders in actually knowing and lucidly explaining why he believes what he believes.

But no one should base his vote on Trump’s refusal to disavow the KKK because it didn’t happen and therefore can’t disqualify him.

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