Wednesday night, CNN hosted a debate for Univision and the Washington Post to question the candidates for the Democratic primary. The debate was a miserable one, with the moderators asking avoiding substantive questions in favor of ones that seemed tough but were actually facile. (Though Jorge Ramos extracting promises not to deport children from both candidates makes up for a lot.)
The tone of the night was set early with what might be the worst way to approach the Donald Trump question possible: Quibbling over how to label his noxious bigotry.
"Secretary Clinton, you have known Donald Trump a long time," Karen Tumulty asked, by way of actually starting the debate after a boring procedural discussion. "You have seen what kind of campaign he's running. Secretary Clinton, is Donald Trump a racist?"
Clinton didn't hold back in her answer, focusing on the noxious things Trump says:
I was the first one to call him out. I called him out when he was calling Mexicans rapists.
When he was engaging in rhetoric that I found deeply offensive. I said basta ("enough!"), and I am pleased that others are also joining in making clear that his rhetoric, his demagoguery, his trafficking in prejudice and paranoia has no place in our political system. Especially from somebody running for president who couldn't decide whether or not to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke. So people can draw their own conclusions about him. I will just end by saying this. You don't make America great by getting rid of everything that made America great.
This wasn't enough for Tumulty, who replied, "Secretary Clinton, my question was about his character." Which is a pretty nasty insult with regards to the audience's intelligence. Does Clinton need to whip out a picture book called "Racism Is Bad" and explain everything in one-syllable words?
But since Tumulty needed Clinton to get explicit, Clinton made it clear that she would rather talk about ideas than labels, arguing, "I think we can make the case against him if he is the nominee, by pointing out what he has said. What he claims to believe in. The values he's promoting. And I think that's a better way for the American people to draw their conclusions."
Those prepared to use this as a weapon to characterize Clinton as a secret traitor who is going soft on Trump for nefarious purposes were quickly disappointed. After all, Sanders was also smart enough to dodge the bait:
I think that the American people are never going to elect a president who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims, who insults women, who insults African-Americans. And let us not forget that several years ago, Trump was in the middle of the so- called birther movement, trying to delegitimize the president of the United States of America.
He went on to highlight Trump's history with the birther movement, noting that questions about citizenship seem provoked more by skin color than ambiguity in our citizenship laws. But no matter how hard Tumulty pressed Sanders, he would not cough up the word "racist".
Twitter blew up with rage over this and Gawker rushed in to give shape to that rage.
(Sanders' Oscar the Grouch stubborn face is the perfect rebuttal to this stupid question, I have to say.)
Unfortunately for those of us out there who all think we're better at politics than the professionals, I have to say Sanders and Clinton are right about this and the sneering masses are wrong. Is Donald Trump a racist? Well, duh. And you and I and every social media geek and pundit should feel free to say it, if they want to. Do you thing, follow your star, have at it.
But it's wise for the politicians to avoid labeling Trump that way and instead do what Clinton and Sanders do here, which is to frame the debate in terms of words and deeds instead of labels.
That's because the second one of them labels Trump a "racist," the debate immediately shifts away from the repugnant things he says and does and towards a completely fruitless debate centered around two unknowable things: What's in his heart and what number of bigoted things you have to say before you are officially deemed a "racist."
The problem with terms like "racist" is that they have no fixed meaning, as much as I wish that weren't the case. That ambiguity allows the defenders of the accused to turn this into semantic debate: When do you "get" to call someone a racist? Is the racism located in the heart? Is it located in the things you say? Can we ever really know for sure what goes on in someone's head?
These are are all idiotic questions, but it doesn't really matter. Once you get people into the game of arguing semantics, they are no longer arguing, as Clinton tried very nicely to say, about actual values.
Worse, the word allows Trump and his supporters to invoke a fruitless debate over where the line is between "racist" and "not-racist". At this point, the debate is over how far is too far and not about what Trump is actually saying and doing. This has the side benefit of allowing Trump supporters to imply that everything is fine and good as long as he doesn't go "too far," a line which just so happens to always be moving.
We've seen the same problem with the word "fascist." As much as we might wish otherwise, the term simply doesn't have a rigid, empirically tested meaning. Which means that every time it gets invoked with regards to Trump, we have to have a dithering debate over whether or not he "counts" as a fascist. Which is fine for people writing think pieces which allow them to get into nuances. But in debates and in the cable news talking head circuit, there's no space for such nuance, and so it's best avoided in favor of focusing on, yep, words and deeds.
(The label debate has also served to distract from the way that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are just as bad as Trump, albeit in different ways. Which is also a major problem, but I digress.)
I'm not some "no labels" moron. Labels serve a purpose, giving name and shape to important ideas: Feminism and equality and democracy, but also racism and fascism and bigotry. But they can also be a trap, weaponized to turn discussions away from ideas and towards semantic hair-splitting.
In the case of Donald Trump's racism, it's quite clear that debate question would lead to way more hair-splitting and way less idea-building. Clinton and Sanders were right. They need to focus on values, not labels, when it comes to Donald Trump. And trust that the public is smart enough to draw their own conclusions.
And that conclusion is probably going to be, as Sanders suggested, that Trump is a racist. I know that's how this member of the public feels, having perused the evidence.