What do you do when your presidential campaign is a massive dumpster fire? If you’re Donald Trump, you throw gasoline on it.
Just as the news is dominated by confirmation that Hillary Clinton was “extremely careless” in compromising the security of classified information — which is somehow totally different from the criminal offense of “gross negligence” — Trump decided to double down on his use of an anti-Semitic Internet meme borrowed from a white nationalist.
In a rambling campaign speech last night, he declared that he wishes his people hadn’t deleted the tweet and that he had instead defended it.
Now let’s recap what this was all about. At the end of last week, Trump tweeted out a graphic accusing Hillary Clinton of corruption (no big stretch there) with a prominently placed Star of David over a background of money. The implication, obviously, is that she’s in the pocket of those nefarious Jews.
Here’s what that looked like.
After two days, the Trump campaign came up with the best the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse ever: Trump thought the six-pointed star was the shape of a sheriff’s badge. That prompted widespread mockery along these lines:
TRUMP: (watching Schindler’s List) Why are they trying to get rid of all the sheriffs?
— Daniel Lin (@DLin71) July 4, 2016
Proving that we have passed over the Poe Horizon once and for all, it turns out Trump was actually just playing catch-up with his critics’ most absurd projections of his possible response.
Following this lead, Trump’s online supporters went all Da Vinci Code and pointed to the use of a six-sided star in Buddhist and Hindu symbolism. Not to mention its use by Disney, which just clinches the matter.
But this is all just after-the-fact rationalization because we know exactly where that Trump meme came from: It was created by a white supremacist and posted to a racist Internet discussion group. We also know exactly how it made its way onto Trump’s Twitter feed. His campaign team is deeply tied into so-called “alt-right” racist social media networks, whose memes regularly make their way into Trump’s social media feed. The issue isn’t just that the six-pointed star in the Hillary Clinton meme could be misinterpreted. It was the fact that it actually came from a white supremacist, showing that racists have a direct conduit into the Trump campaign’s media operation.
So, hooray! The Democrats voted for a candidate whose e-mail was probably penetrated by Russian and Chinese security services. Now Republicans are about to nominate a candidate whose campaign is penetrated by the Aryan Nation.
Some people are describing that Star of David tweet as a “dog whistle.” The idea is that politicians sometimes send a message meant to be recognized only by a certain target audience, but (as with a dog whistle) undetectable to everyone else. A candidate whose official positions are designed not to scare off pro-choice moderates, for example, might still use a peculiar turn of phrase (perhaps “culture of life”) intended to help pro-lifers recognize him as one of their own.
But this isn’t a dog whistle, because everyone can hear it. Despite Trump’s weird ad hoc excuses, the Star of David is a universally recognizable symbol. Nor is there much subtlety in tweeting items from someone whose handle is @WhiteGenocide. Crafting a dog whistle that appeals to racists without alarming everyone else might be despicable, but it would at least be clever. This isn’t.
Managing a candidate’s communications with the public to ensure he avoids saying things that will drive away millions of voters is a basic function of a campaign. Trump’s operation is proving utterly incompetent at this basic task. Or the candidate is. Or both.
Or maybe they just can’t filter out this sort of thing because it’s what the candidate and his campaign staff really think. That leads us to the more disturbing possibility: that Trump is doing this because he is racist or is sympathetic to racism.
I am automatically skeptical of any speculation about what Trump actually thinks. He has a record of saying whatever pops randomly into his brain or seems like the right way to butter up an audience at a particular moment. That’s not the same thing as a genuine belief or principle.
But here’s the thing. People who are not racists have alarm bells that go off, warning them not to say or repeat certain things. These are called “inhibitions,” and they can be good when they stop us from saying stupid and irrational things. Trump repeats these things because he lacks those inhibitions.
So is his susceptibility to memes from anti-Semites and white nationalists just part of a general lack of restraint — or does he specifically lack an inhibition against racism?
Yeah, you’re right: who cares? If reasonable people have to debate about whether the Republican candidate is really a racist and anti-Semite, or if he just accidentally sounds like one, then we’ve already lost. We’ve lost the election, and we’ve lost our principles. It may be too late to avoid the first of those disasters, and Republicans have only a few weeks left to avoid the second.
It’s important to remember that we haven’t actually nominated Trump yet. The official nomination happens in a few weeks at the Republican National Convention, and that will be our last chance to free the delegates, letting them vote their conscience — and to find, at the last minute, someone else to be the standard-bearer of the party.
It’s a drastic solution, to be sure, and it’s unlikely. Political courage has been in short supply this year. That, come to think of it, makes this pretty much like every other year. It’s just that political courage was more desperately needed this year, making its absence all the more noticeable.
Follow Robert on Twitter.