Tuesday afternoon, Donald Trump (or his anemic campaign staff anyway) made a promise: That he would quit talking about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a case involving Trump University, a sleazy grift Trump was running where he took people's money in exchange for an education in investing they would never actually get. Trump did not apologize for the racist attacks he launched against Curiel, which went over like Oprah giving away free cars to his rally audiences, instead lying and blaming the media for supposedly "misconstruing" his remarks.
But apparently that wasn't the only falsehood in the statement, because there is no indication that Trump really does intend to drop this. The very same afternoon he pretended he was moving on, Trump made some snarling comments about how Republicans who disapprove of his racism need to "man up", which appears to mean that they need to be more overtly racist themselves. On Wednesday, even though the conservative host Cal Thomas tried to pry him off of it, Trump went there again, ranting about how he is going to win the lawsuit, etc. etc. You can probably fill in Trump's reality-detatched bragging for yourself at this point.
Dropping the subject entirely, for both Trump and his defenders, is the smartest move here. His attacks on Judge Curiel are not only racist, but rooted in an authoritarian contempt for rule of law. Trump is congenitally incapable of admitting error, much less apologizing. The only thing conservatives can do, at this point, is to cease all communications about this matter and hope the daily churn of the news cycle washes the controversy away.
But it's not just Trump who can't drop it, it turns out. No, that deep need to nuh-uh charges of racism is baked directly into the right wing DNA. They need to deny that racism is real or that prejudicial beliefs exist outside of a few fringe groups of pointy-hat sheet-wearers. The urge to deny accusations of racism are like an itch they cannot resist scratching, even if doing so draws blood.
And so the Trump campaign's stated desire to drop it is going completely unheeded, not just by the candidate himself, but by his surrogates and the conservative movement generally. Here are just a few examples of the nuh-uhing of Trump's racism that have occurred in the hours and days after the Trump campaign issued a statement outlining a supposed desire to drop it:
- On Wednesday night, Bill O'Reilly continued to litigate the matter, declaring, "That you don't use the 'R word' unless you are David Duke." The demand that one literally has to join the KKK before the rest of us are allowed to notice that you are a racist is a clearly self-serving one for O'Reilly, whose show milks huge ratings by scaring bigots about the supposed evils of black people and the hippity-hop music that kids listen to these days. I propose an alternative measure: If you think O'Reilly is a smart man worth listening to, that is plenty of enough reason to hit you with the R-word for me.
- Jeffrey Lord, Trump surrogate, went on CNN hours after the let's-drop-it statement and tried to roll out a version of "calling out racism is the real racism," one which was so ham-fisted that it immediately went viral.
- On Wednesday, Senator Chuck Grassley argued that Judge Sonia Sotomayor's arguments in favor of more racial diversity in the judiciary are the equivalent of Trump's lengthy insinuations that the only people who can be trusted to be sober-minded jurists are white men. Hey, both comments acknowledge the existence of race, which is what "racism" is to conservatives.
- Wednesday, Rep. Duncan Hunter went on a weird racist rant where he riffed on the notion that an American of Iraqi descent shouldn't be able to judge sniper Chris Kyle who, as far as I know, has never been accused of any criminal behavior in the first place. He also invoked the O.J. trial. So people of color cannot be considered impartial judges of white people, but people of color are also seen as incapable of being impartial judges of other people of color. The only consistent principle here is a belief that people of color are inferior.
- Mike Huckabee on Wednesday was declaring that Trump can't be a racist because he says so, fitting the larger pattern of white men who are clearly biased towards preserving white privilege declaring themselves the final authority on what is and isn't racism. (Surprise! The answer, from these self-declared authorities, is that nothing is racism, at least if it comes from a white conservative.)
And so on and so forth. More depressing examples here.
The issue here is a structural one. The conservative movement is, at its core, about protecting existing social hierarchies from being dismantled by anti-racists and feminists. But because of a broad social consensus that racism and sexism are wrong, this goal has to be disguised, usually by painting social justice activists as hysterics who are making stuff up. The strategy is not to argue about whether bigotry is right, an argument they cannot win. The strategy is to argue over whether bigotry is real, i.e. to gaslight opponents by pretending not to see what is obvious and try to force liberals into a defensive posture of trying to argue they aren't crazy.
By and large, conservatives get away with this, because most bigoted comments are packaged with plausible deniability, communicated in code that allows the gaslighting right wingers to act all affronted when you suggest the racist thing they said was racist.
Trump, however, is throwing a monkey wrench into the works by saying stuff that isn't coded at all. But the scripts on how to defend racist comments against critics — deny the comment was racist, paint the critics as crazy people — hasn't changed at all. It's not even clear how it could. To admit that Trump said a racist thing, for which he will not apologize, opens up the possibility that racism is not actually an imaginary thing that hysterical liberals made up to gain some political advantage, but a real problem that is so widespread that an overt racist could win the Republican nomination.
That's why they can't drop it. To drop it is to tacitly admit racism is real. That cannot happen, so they are desperately clinging to the old scripts, arguing that it's somehow crazy to think it's bigoted to suggest that only white men have what it takes to be sober-minded jurists.