Donald Trump, contrary to widespread belief, does in fact have a core set of values and has lived by this moral code for 50 years. It’s not love of country, family, religion, or business ethics. He has treated these pillars of right-wing morality like a frat treats a freshly cleaned bathroom.
Trump’s one constant has been his racism and bigotry. Even when it seemingly makes no political sense, his unerring instinct moves him toward his happy place: hating others. Never underestimating the racism that lives in this country’s marrow has been his greatest political survival skill, and his survival has never felt more precarious. This is the best way to understand why Trump would look at the political landscape, see Brittney Griner rotting in a Russian prison, and say she should be buried under the cell. Instead of defending a US citizen, an Olympian, and a symbol of wrongful political detentions, Trump piled on. On some godforsaken fascistic podcast that I wouldn’t link to on a dare, Trump called Griner “potentially spoiled” (not sure what that means) and said she deserved to be behind bars.
He described her Kafkaesque situation as follows: “She went in there loaded up with drugs into a hostile territory where they’re very vigilant about drugs. They don’t like drugs. And she got caught. And now we’re supposed to get her out—and she makes, you know, a lot of money, I guess. We’re supposed to get her out for an absolute killer and one of the biggest arms dealers in the world.”
Little of this is true. Griner did not show up “loaded up with drugs” but with two vials of hashish oil, which her doctor had prescribed to her. She says she has no memory of packing them in her bag. Because of this, she faces 10 years behind bars. This despite the fact that she was forced to sign papers that she could not read and says she was imprisoned for several days before even knowing why she was being charged.
There is an arms dealer, Viktor Bout, whom Russia seems to want in return. (It should be noted that Bout allegedly operated for years with tacit US approval and dealt high-tech weaponry to fund the dirty wars of the United States.) But this potential deal is not only about Griner and Bout—it also involves Paul Whelan, a US Marine who is in a Russian jail on espionage charges.
I reached out to Sue Hovey, the co-author of Griner’s 2014 memoir In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court. She made plain her feelings about Trump’s comments, “Brittney Griner is an American trailblazer. She’s the kind of caring, inclusive person who leads us forward as a society. Donald Trump is a traitorous, mendacious bigot who cares only about himself. Just ask Mike Pence.”
It has largely been a given that everyone wants Griner to come home and be reunited with her family. But Trump doesn’t see the world in terms of easing human suffering. He sees Griner, and you can imagine the neon-blood-red words flashing in his brain—“Black,” “lesbian,” “WNBA”—and Trump immediately deducing that he can use her as a political piñata to bond himself to a frenzied base. It comes from his Colin Kaepernick playbook: demonize a Black athlete, lie about who they are and what they stand for, and reap the benefits.
But there is a difference. Back in those innocent days of 2016 when Trump profanely belched that kneeling during the anthem should get a person fired and deported, he was singing the song and his people would dance. He moved racism and demonization away from the province of political operatives and dark-money TV ads and bellowed it onstage as news cameras rolled. Today, the mob is playing the tune, and Trump is scrambling to keep up. By attacking Griner, Trump is like an aging musician hoping that a cover of a greatest hit will land him back on the charts. And as a bonus, by siding with Russia and their drug laws, Trump sends a wink to white nationalists whose fetish of Putin and “tough on crime” laws (as long as the crimes aren’t their own) has long been a part of his political calculus.
Meanwhile, we still have Griner: holding up photos of her loved ones from inside a cage, so the judge can see the people whose hearts are breaking every day that she is under lock and key. Her pain should be our problem. Instead, Trump celebrates her incarceration. Yes, the cruelty is the point. It makes clear that he shares the hatreds of his political base and feels that Griner deserves her dehumanization.