Michael D’Antonio is the author of “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
(CNN)By now we should all be accustomed to the way that Donald Trump twists almost everything to make it about him — personally — and not about whatever issue is at hand. This is especially true when he takes questions from reporters, who may be the only people in his life who consistently challenge him, and even more particularly when the issue is bigotry.
His answer will invariably begin with a preamble that calls attention to his own greatness, in politics or business or both, after which he will respond he is the “least racist” or “least anti-Semitic” person one could ever meet and that should settle it.
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The denial Trump practices whenever he is criticized about this is a serious problem for him and the country. On a personal level, it makes it difficult for him to accept his mistakes and make corrections. For the nation, this problem means that in the coming four years, and perhaps eight, we won’t have the kind of leadership that brings a diverse country together in peace.
How to confront this is not a simple thing. Indeed while others would say that Trump protests too much and must, therefore, simply be lying about his avowed open-mindedness, I think he is expressing what is truly in his heart.
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From the time I have spent with him and reporting about him, it’s clear to me that Trump is sure he’s not a bigot — and I am inclined to accept this assertion. I think he is instead a man who has been so isolated by wealth, power and his own moral laziness that he has never grown out of the 1950s racial mentality of his youth in Queens.
As any New Yorker knows, the melting pot metropolis Trump came up in is so diverse that people of different races, religions, ethnic groups and other identities rub up against each other all day long. The friction can create heat. In the past the heat led to stereotypes, which people deployed with varying degrees of ignorance and animus.
Trump is a man of that past, whose family’s business was accused by the Justice Department of racially profiling rental applicants and who once sourly told interviewer Bryant Gumbel about how affirmative action made it better to be a “well-educated ” black man than to be white.
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Throughout his life Trump has expressed similar ideas while insisting he harbors no prejudice against specific groups. In general he has been able to walk a line that separates rhetoric from racism, but his steps have not been perfect. During the presidential campaign, he wavered on the subject of his racist supporter David Duke and dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement before pivoting to dilute the movement’s message by declaring “all lives matter.” In both cases, Trump crossed the line into racist territory, signaling to certain white voters that he saw the world as they do.
At the same time, Trump has a problem with rudeness. When he ordered a Jewish reporter asking about anti-Semitism to “sit down” at a recent news conference, he was acting as a boor, and not a racist.
His request at the same news conference that a black female journalist arrange a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus was all kinds of awful. It was a display that could be deemed sexist, bullying and insulting. But the racism in it was likely more a matter of Trump’s lack of education and narcissism than hatred.
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As a billionaire surrounded by yes men and yes women, Trump has rarely mixed with people who might challenge his view of the world. This is why he’s disturbed when people call out his insulting statements. No one I care about ever complains like this, he thinks to himself. These people criticizing me now must be out to get me
In Trump’s lifetime, America’s main moral challenge has been to meet the call from those who would have the country live up to its ideal of liberty and justice for all. This challenge was posed by Jewish Americans in the wake of the Holocaust, minority citizens during the civil rights movement that gathered force in the 1960s and the women’s rights movement that followed. More recently lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, and immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, have asked to be included.
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For those who have full rights, and full access to the blessing of the nation, those seeking the same recognition and inclusion represent a test. This is especially true for “high-status” citizens who, by virtue of being white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, wealthy, Protestant and well-educated have great advantages in the American game of life. The more of these boxes one can tick off, the more of a head start one enjoys.
Many high-status Americans have had the moral capacity and, in some cases, experienced enough struggle to open their hearts to their fellow citizens and develop the habit of justice. This has been true of most modern presidents, too.
Take, for example, George W. Bush, who was born to enormous wealth, power and privilege. Bush lived a relatively broad life and could consider his own battle with alcoholism to understand what it means to be a victim of something beyond one’s control. Hence Bush’s concern for public schools, evidenced by his No Child Left Behind program.
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Trump, who has known every status advantage and little pain, other than against self-inflicted wounds, has shown little sign he can overcome the isolation of his privilege. Throughout his life and during the election campaign, he played to white grievance and racial divisions. As President, he has — save for a few token appointments — surrounded himself with people who are similarly lacking in experience outside the isolated precincts of astounding and, for the most part, unearned privilege
In business, Trump’s failure to understand the problem of bigotry mattered little. As President his ways of talking about it — and, more importantly, his actions — matter enormously. His stalled plan to ban visitors from certain Muslim-majority countries, his moves against unauthorized immigrants and his retreat on the rights of transgender citizens, all speak of a personal shortcoming that goes beyond a way of talking.
Instead of healing divisions he is widening them because, thus far, he hasn’t developed the habits of a heart that can give the country better.