Donald Trump may be one of the last people in America who doesn’t know that he is a bigot. After weeks of alleged “outreach” to black and Muslim communities, the GOP nominee Monday night littered the debate stage with racial stereotypes, doubling down on his virulent brand of prejudice as more than 80 million Americans watched.
His answers betrayed the heart of a man far too consumed with himself to see other people as they are. Perhaps more devastating, he cannot seem to see himself. And there is nothing any campaign manager, senior adviser, or media trainer can do to help. Trump is incapable of a pivot because he is unable to recognize his own frailties.
A sneering, angry Trump protested that it was he and he alone who understood the plight of black people, writ large, and insisted he should be given some credit for visiting African-American churches (for the first time) in recent weeks. His answer to nearly every dilemma seemed to be: Call the police.
Hillary Clinton, he quipped, was afraid “to say two words: law and order,” as if black people are inherently violent and prone to criminality. “Our inner cities, African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous.”
He gave no credence whatsoever to concerns about over-policing, mass incarceration, or the well-documented dangers of racial profiling. Trump, for all his business experience, misses the linkage between interactions with the criminal-justice system and economic outcomes. He apparently sees no connection between how communities are policed and social disparities. He apparently knows no successful or middle-class black people but believes we all live in war zone-like inner cities where entirely different values apply.
And if that weren’t enough, Trump continued to defend his attempts to delegitimize the nation’s first black president, insisting he’d done nothing wrong but instead had somehow delivered a public service by spending years amplifying race-war conspiracy nuts in demanding to see President Obama’s long-form birth certificate, along with questioning whether Obama deserved entry into Harvard Law School or ever attended Columbia University.
The word “sorry” never crossed Trump’s lips. At one point, as the candidate praised his own birtherism, moderator Lester Holt asked: “But we’re talking about racial healing in this segment. What do you say to Americans, people of color who…”
Trump interrupted: “Well, it was very—I say nothing.”
Like every bigot you’ll ever meet, Trump doesn’t believe he is wrong. He looks in the mirror and sees a man of fundamental fairness, one who sees and treats people as they deserve.
What Trump will never admit is that he likes being white. That he knows the opportunities afforded to him as the white son of a wealthy construction contractor—after Clinton noted he started off in business with a $14 million gift from his father, he protested, “my father gave me a very small loan”—are not open to the black and brown children living in poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, or Atlanta. He knows that race and wealth matter, that his own path would have been harder, even with such a huge loan, if he had been black. Trump may not recognize his own bigotry, but he knows he would never trade places with my brothers.
It should come as no surprise that Trump is doing so poorly with black voters. His recent outreach to minorities—intended as a bankshot appeal to moderate white women—is nothing more than a string of missed opportunities. Trump had every chance to make his case to the African-American community, every chance to open a new compact built on mutual trust and respect.
The fact is, Trump cannot make a meaningful connection with people he cannot see. And that work starts with seeing himself.