If there were any doubts about the racial animus driving Donald Trump’s attacks on Barack Obama, the billionaire reality-show star exposed himself with his latest conspiracy. On Monday night, Trump questioned how Obama could possibly have been admitted to Ivy League schools, since Trump “heard” Obama was a “terrible student.” Trump told the AP that he was investigating the issue, whatever that means, just as he claims to have dispatched investigators to Hawaii in order to find the president’s famous birth certificate.
“How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump said. “I’m thinking about it, I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.”
By charging that Obama was not admitted based on merit, Trump is suggesting that Obama was admitted because he is black.
In GOP politics, attacking racial minorities as the underachieving beneficiaries of affirmative action is a very old move. Senator Jesse Helms produced the most notorious example, an ad against his black opponent Harvey Gantt that blasted affirmative action for taking jobs from deserving white people and giving them to minorities. Even that dark salvo, however, was putatively linked to jobs and active policy debates. Trump is not so smooth. He is blatantly attacking Obama’s teenage qualifications for college—a topic so obscure, it was a non-issue in Obama’s exhaustive, two-year-long presidential campaign. Coupled with the rage of the Birthers, Trump’s adopted conspiracy crowd, the mogul looks more like he is auditioning for a talk radio gig than the presidency.
Still, racial dog whistles only work when a lot of people play along. Otherwise a coded attack—aimed at the racists but clinging to deniability—curdles into public, blatant racism. (That’s bad in politics and business, so it would restrain even a business candidate like Trump.) So far, the press has been quite delicate when confronting Trump.
The editor-in-chief of CBS News, Dan Farber, sounded rather strained when explaining Trump’s Ivy League attack:
“…how could a person from Mr. Obama’s humble background and academic achievements get into Harvard? Trump’s inference is that Mr. Obama is a cipher, cannot be trusted and is concealing a dark secret.”
What is this dark, untrustworthy cipher-secret? I don’t see Trump saying that the president of the United States is a cipher—a zero or nonentity—but rather that back in the day, Obama was not good enough to get into college without a racial boost.
Even respected liberal commentators have given Trump something of a pass for the racial tension animating Birtherism. Hendrik Hertzberg, the authoritative essayist, argues in this week’s New Yorker that Trump’s appeal to birtherism is “part of a larger pattern of rejection of reality” by Republicans, like denying the science of global warming, or believing that “contraception causes abortion.”