Trump's Racist Rhetoric: Impulsive or Calculated? | Opinion

Having co-written a book about President Trump's rhetoric, and more specifically his Twitter habits, I am regularly asked: "Are Trump's tweets impulsive or calculated?" This question has taken on special importance in the past few weeks following a series of overtly racist tweets by the President. Here's what I take journalists and others to be asking when they pose this question: "Is Donald Trump strategically employing racism to appeal to his base?"

It's a difficult question to answer because it assumes personal impulse and political strategy are mutually exclusive. But in Trump-world, they're not. In fact, Trump's impulses are the entirety of his political strategy. Trump does not have policies (or even a basic understanding of issues.) He says and does whatever he thinks and feels. The only political calculation being made is that everything Trump says will resonate with enough of his followers to work in his favor.

So, let's consider how this played out over the past few weeks with respect to the matter of race. On July 14, Trump urged four minority congresswomen on Twitter to "go back" to the "totally broken and crime infested places" countries they came from. Was this racist tweet a calculated appeal to his base? No, of course not. No politician, not even Donald Trump, is so stupid as to intentionally make such an overtly racist statement. Trump was simply speaking his mind, as he does in every context. The racism in his tweets simply reflected his mindset.

Many Trump followers took no offense to the tweets because they share Trump's anxiety over the changing racial makeup of the country and the corresponding decentering of white privilege (as evidenced by the racist chants at his subsequent rally). If anything, Trump's followers interpret the close alignment between his impulses and their own feelings as evidence of "identification." In their view, he's one of them.

But since making overtly racist comments about minority members of Congress is unacceptable to the majority of the public, Trump's tweets posed a serious political problem, especially given the unusual longevity this story enjoyed in our rapidly changing news cycle.

Enter the White House public relations machine. In addition to sending staffers on Fox News to shamelessly claim the tweets weren't racist, the PR apparatus seized on the arrest of rapper A$AP Rocky (as well as low unemployment rates among African Americans, as though that has anything to do with Trump's racism) to try to counter the news narrative. On July 25, roughly ten days after his racist tweets about the minority congresswomen, tweets that were still being widely covered in the media, Trump tweeted:

"Very disappointed in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven for being unable to act. Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States. I watched the tapes of A$AP Rocky, and he was being followed and harassed by troublemakers. Treat Americans fairly! #FreeRocky"

This tweet is calculated; it is designed to assure the public that Trump is not racist (by sticking up for the African American community, which A$AP Rocky somehow inexplicably embodies,) while reassuring his base that, yes (wink, wink,) he is racist (by reinforcing a nationalistic America-first message.) There's only one problem: Trump did not author this tweet.

We can deduce this because the tweet is strategic, not impulsive. Trump only does impulse. We further know this because it employs words and phrases that aren't part of Trump's lexicon: "disappointed," "has let down," "African American community," etc. Trump does not speak like this (EVER!). He also does not get disappointed; he gets enraged, which he then tweets about.

So, on July 27, Trump attacked Rep. Elijah Cummings, tweeting that "Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place." The language of "infestation" Trump employs here and elsewhere is fundamentally racist. It is specifically designed to dehumanize (i.e., rats and rodents) and degrade (i.e., disgusting, dangerous and filthy) racial minorities by tapping into an ugly history of racism.

In short, Trump is so impulsive (and racist) that he could not go even a short time without tweeting something racist again. Perhaps out of disbelief, a reported asked Trump on July 30 about the strategy behind his attacks on Rep. Cummings. Trump replied, "There's no strategy, I have no strategy, there's zero strategy, it's very simple."

Yes, it is very simple. Trump says whatever he thinks and feels. Often, what he thinks and feels is racist. Sadly, that resonates with many of his followers. So, the strategy is: always affirm Trump's impulses (no matter how dark, disturbing, and dangerous they may be), while trying to maintain plausible deniability about those very impulses.

Brian L. Ott, a professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author, with Greg Dickinson, of The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​