“It’s time for reporters and journalists to be honest with the American people,” warned Harry Reid on the floor of the Senate six weeks ago. “They owe America the truth. Through his words and deeds, Donald Trump is a racist.”
For months, Donald Trump’s racism and sexism have served as Exhibit A in the case against his fitness for the presidency. In spite of Reid’s remark, the press has made Trump’s bigotry very clear, publishing countless articles, explanatory timelines, and listicles on the topic. And yet, on Tuesday, the American people went to the polls and made racist Donald Trump their president-elect. How could this happen?
People like me—members of a desperate and discombobulated coastal elite—have floated a number of different explanations for this outcome. Maybe Americans don’t mind that Trump is racist because we’re racist, too. We live in a racist, sexist country, and Trump has given the racists and the sexists the chance to vote their true beliefs. But what about all the counties and states that went for Trump after having voted Barack Obama into office? Maybe Americans are more sexist than they are racist, in the end, and their votes for Trump were really votes against Hillary Clinton. A third explanation blames white women for the outcome, given that a majority of them voted for Trump in spite of his misogyny. Or perhaps it’s the case that millions of people—including, for example, the third of Latino voters who lined up for Trump—are living in a world built from outright lies and fake news reports from Macedonia. Perhaps these people didn’t know, or would not believe, the truth of what Trump has said and done. They failed to understand that he’s a racist pig, and so they elected him.
Here’s my theory: Tuesday’s surprise had less to do with dueling facts than rival definitions. I suspect that many Americans—an electoral college victory’s worth, at least—would agree that we shouldn’t elect a racist to the presidency. By that logic, Trump should have been defeated easily; he failed a basic moral test. But if racist is to be a decisive and disqualifying label then we need to have consensus on its meaning—my understanding of what it is to be a racist must be the same as everybody else’s. What happened Tuesday tells me that it’s not.
You could see the disagreements over racism—when and how the term should be applied—throughout the course of the campaign. Trump’s abhorrent message was clear from the outset. “They’re bringing drugs,” he said of Mexican immigrants on the day that he announced his candidacy. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Before that, of course, he’d spent years proudly championing the racist birther movement. Yet for many months to follow, the question of Trump’s status as a racist—whether he had officially earned the label—remained a topic for discussion. He’s just “careless and undisciplined,” his defenders said. “Donald Trump seems racist,” Andy Samberg said at the Emmys in September 2015. In a televised debate in March, Hillary Clinton dodged the question of whether Trump deserved the scarlet R: “I was the first one to call him out” for his “deeply offensive rhetoric,” she said, adding that “trafficking in prejudice and paranoia has no place in our political system.” But is he, in fact, an actual racist? “People can draw their own conclusions,” she said.
That waffling ended for many in June, when Trump announced he’d been victimized by Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University—because “he’s a Mexican.” (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.) For those with Hillary, this moment was decisive. “Donald Trump Finally Admits His Campaign Is Racist,” declared the Huffington Post. “Trump’s Attack on a Federal Judge Is an Open Appeal to Racism,” said Slate. “Trump’s Attack on Judge Curiel Is Clearly Racist,” wrote Newsweek. In an interview the following week, CNN’s Jake Tapper gave cathartic voice to this idea: “If you are saying he can’t do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?” he asked Trump, in what would come to be seen as a kind of Welch-McCarthy moment for the Never Trump movement.
But as Tapper said, it came down to definitions. “No, I don’t think so at all,” Trump said in answer to Tapper’s charge. “He’s proud of his heritage. I respect him for that.” Some commentators agreed: He wasn’t calling Judge Curiel inferior, only saying that he might be biased on account of his ethnicity. Brown University economist Glenn Loury pointed out that in other contexts, we’re happy to acknowledge that a person’s background can inform her judgment and perspective.
Still, a consensus was emerging, at least among elites, that Trump had indeed crossed the racist line. Even Paul Ryan, now the president-elect’s toadie on the Hill, went after Trump in June, calling the attack on Curiel the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Ryan’s choice of phrase was revealing. In defining racism, he did not cite the dictionary. That’s where one would expect to find the most common understanding of the word. But Trump’s attack on Curiel does not fit so neatly into, say, the first definition that you’d find on Dictionary.com: “the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.” Instead, Ryan appealed to the textbook meaning of racism, which is to say, the one that derives from academic expertise.
When racism first came to be examined as a social problem, starting in the 1920s, the term referred to something plain to see: an explicit ideology of domination, as expressed by individuals. By the 1960s, though, this old-school, overt racism seemed in decline and the term was broadened to include more subtle agents of discrimination, exploitation, and inequality. Entire institutions could be racist, and systems could be racist, separate from the people who composed them.
In the past few decades, scholars have stretched the boundaries of the term even further. Now we understand that people, too, can be racist in subtle, systematic ways. Even if you disavow white supremacy, you might still be subject to its influence, as well as the unintentional form of racial prejudice that social scientists call “implicit bias.” You and I are racist, essentially, in ways we’re not consciously aware of.
The broader definition of racism as something systemic or implicit has flourished on the left and in academia. That’s for good reason: It allows us to talk about the nation’s most important social problems—police shootings, for example—in the most impassioned moral terms without labeling specific people as evil or malicious. (Maybe cops mean well, as a rule, but like the rest of us they suffer from implicit bias.) This more nuanced understanding of racism calls attention to persistent racial injustice while at the same time framing it in broader, more communal terms. It calls out the problem and invites solutions.
But textbook racism, however useful it might be as rhetoric, comes into conflict with the more old-fashioned dictionary definition of the word. Last year, social scientist Patrick Forscher reviewed the most-cited studies on prejudice from the past quarter-century and found that almost every single one of them treats bias as something implicit and unconscious rather than malicious and intentional. This puts the literature at odds with a public understanding of prejudice as the product of malicious feelings, the source of hate crimes, and an ingredient of classic racist ideology. “The gap between common and researcher understandings of ‘prejudice,’ ” Forscher wrote, “can create problems when researchers attempt to communicate their findings to the public.”
That’s exactly what happened in the 2016 election. Journalists and even politicians like Paul Ryan examined Donald Trump and announced he was a racist. But millions of Americans looked at the same facts and came to a different conclusion. He was not a racist, at least as they understood the term.
The breakdown of communication was never more apparent than during the first debate, when Lester Holt asked the candidates how they might improve race relations. Trump gave his standard, crude response, proposing greater use of stop-and-frisk policing and more policing overall. “We have to protect our inner cities,” he said.
Then Clinton went to her textbook definition: “We’ve got to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” she said. “I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” Systemic racism and implicit bias: On Twitter, racial justice activists rejoiced. Finally, she said the words out loud! But how many people truly understood what she was saying?
A few weeks later, the Washington Post published a video in which Trump confessed to habitual sexual assault, boasting to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush that he routinely grabs and kisses women against their will. Soon, numerous women had accused him of engaging in exactly this behavior. This, again, was deemed an automatic disqualification: Trump had shown himself to be a misogynist—a sexual predator, even. Surely he was finished. How could any woman vote for him?
But polling soon revealed that lots of women were unmoved by these revelations. More than half of non-college-educated white women agreed that “grab them by the pussy” should be understood as harmless “locker room talk” rather than threatening hate speech. How could that be possible?
Back in 2009, Yale University’s Dan Kahan ran a study of a notable date-rape case from 1988, in which the woman—a college sophomore—had repeatedly said “no” during a sexual encounter. For his experiment, he gave the facts of the case to 1,500 people along with one of five different legal definitions of sexual assault (including a “no means no” condition), and then asked them whether they believed the defendant should have been convicted of a crime. In the end, he found the legal definitions made less of a difference to the subjects than their cultural backgrounds. Women, in particular, were the most sharply divided in their understanding of the case, according to their identities as either egalitarian (more likely to be liberal) or hierarchical (more likely to be conservative).
Whatever the explanation for this result—Kahan’s is rather subtle—it shows that fundamental disagreements over the meaning of rape can persist even in the face of explicit legal standards, and especially among the class of people who are most directly affected by the crime. It follows, then, that women would not respond to the Access Hollywood revelations in unison, as a clear example of a candidate who crossed a line. Rather, voters would draw on different definitions of misogyny so they could make different judgments of the facts.
This is the lesson of the racist, misogynist candidacy of Donald Trump. We thought these labels, once applied, would stop him in his tracks—that if we could only “prove” that Trump was racist and sexist, we’d reach some common ground of moral decency, and all but the most extreme Trump supporters would have to back away from him. In the end, though, we misunderstood the vagueness of those terms. Labeling Trump didn’t work, because there is no common ground in America when it comes to what those labels mean. No matter what Trump said about women or Muslims or black people, millions of Americans will never see him as a racist and misogynist. That’s not about to change.