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How Donald Trump Excuses His Bigotry

Slate 11/30/2022 Dahlia Lithwick
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Christopher Evans/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images, Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images. © Provided by Slate Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Christopher Evans/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images, Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images, and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.

Donald Trump, who had dinner and fun times last week with virulent antisemite Kanye West (now known as Ye) and white-supremacist-slash-Holocaust-denier Nick Fuentes, initially defended himself by claiming that he had no idea who Fuentes was. Posting on his own network, Truth Social, as the firestorm began to build over Thanksgiving weekend, the former president defended the dinner by explaining that as it occurred, Ye “expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on ‘Tucker Carlson.’ Why wouldn’t I agree to meet? Also, I didn’t know Nick Fuentes.”

This is, of course, the long-standing Trump defense: He can’t ever have done anything wrong because he simply doesn’t know anything, ever. It affords durable protection because, over time, the more things Trump acknowledges he doesn’t understand or care to find out, the less we expect him to comprehend or research anything in the future. It’s actually very much the mirror image of QAnon admonishment that everyone “do your own research.” In this iteration, “I did no research at all” somehow means that you are off the hook for knowing nothing.

He uses this excuse regularly. In 2017, after the white supremacist and antisemitic Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended in the murder of an anti-racist protester on the street, Trump said there had been “very fine people on both sides” of the violent rally. He refused to walk that back, even in the face of threatened resignations from people around him. In part, Trump could assert things about who was there that day and what their character was like because he seemingly never tried to figure anything out. Fuentes, by the way, was at Unite the Right, as was David Duke, whom Trump had claimed to “know nothing about” during the 2016 primary.

Come to think of it, Trump’s claim about Duke back then is the same as his claim about Fuentes this week: “Honestly, I don’t know David Duke. I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him.” Trump would later blame a faulty earpiece for this answer—because if not knowing fails, not hearing can still save the day.

We keep making this same fundamental category error with the former president, assuming that he has achieved a “theory of mind” that makes him capable, as most toddlers become at about age 2 or 3, of understanding that other people are independent actors and moral agents, with their own distinct beliefs, wants, and fears. Donald Trump’s sole reference point, when he’s asked about other people, is always himself—whether he “knows” them, whether they are nice to him. Beyond that, they are uninteresting, which means he doesn’t really “know” anyone. He is truly incapable of imagining their worlds as apart from his own; thus, he can never say with any confidence that he knows anything about anything or anyone else. That has not changed since he lost the 2020 presidential contest.

The problem with the “I didn’t know” defense, which Trump has never stopped deploying to cover his own worst behaviors, is that it is wildly contagious, as Masha Gessen noted after former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told NBC News he didn’t know he was being led on a photo-op through Lafayette Square, in June of 2020, as a pretext to clear out anti-racist protesters. Many other Trumpists, including those confronted with racist and offensive Trump tweets and comments, similarly claimed not to know about them at all. As Gessen observed at the time, “The ignorance defense is not new. The phrase ‘I didn’t know’ might be as good a summary of the testimonies of defendants at the Nuremberg trials as is the better-known ‘I was just following orders.’ ”

Among the handful of Republican leaders who have declined to denounce Trump’s decision to eat a meal with professional haters, versions of the “I didn’t know” defense crop up like familiar weeds, particularly as they attempt to defend their decision not to condemn the dinner or the man who hosted it.

Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, when asked whether he had a statement about the dinner, told NBC News he couldn’t be bothered with questions about Fuentes. “I don’t know who that is. And I don’t see any reason for me to comment on what private individuals do or don’t do themselves,” Cornyn said. “I’ve got more important things to do.” This is the long-standing “I’m too busy to learn about this appalling behavior” argument Trump himself has used.

Sen. Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, offered a different flavor of defense, insisting that Trump probably didn’t know who Fuentes was, and that his staff was clearly to blame: “If the reports are true and the president didn’t know who he was, whoever let him in the room should be fired,” Tillis said. This is the tested-and-true “Important people needn’t know things; that’s what staff is for” defense. It’s another way of shoring up Trump’s claim that he is not capable of understanding whom he sits down with.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, of California, and a member of House Republican leadership, did a similar balancing act, first condemning Fuentes, and then excusing Trump with “The president didn’t know who he was.”

And of course Mike Pence offered the double-decker “I didn’t know” defense Monday night, when he both condemned Trump and defended him: “President Trump was wrong to give a white nationalist, an antisemite, and a Holocaust denier a seat at the table. And I think he should apologize for it and he should denounce those individuals and their hateful rhetoric without qualification,” Pence told NewsNation. Here, he almost said the correct thing: that, whatever his subjective state of mind, Trump should have known that Fuentes is a dangerous bigot. But having told us that, he then covered for Trump by explaining that he didn’t think Trump was a bigot merely because he entertained bigots: “I don’t believe Donald Trump is an antisemite. I don’t believe he is a racist or a bigot. I would not have been his vice president if he was.” Pence then added, “People often forget that the president’s daughter converted to Judaism, his son-in-law is a devout Jew, his grandchildren are Jewish.”

Here is where Pence, who could have simply stopped by deploring antisemitism, ultimately falls into the same trap as his former boss. Nobody cares if Pence “knows” that Trump is an antisemite, just as nobody cares that his son-in-law is a Jew. Pence opting to move from condemning the shockingly bad behavior to praising the heart of the bad actor has the same effect as Trump’s denial: Ye may be a Jew hater, but he didn’t say anything antisemitic to Trump at dinner, so what’s the big deal? Trump may have dined with racists, but that doesn’t mean he is a racist. Two versions of the same story, both circumscribed by what the narrator “knows.”

Maybe, when it comes to both Trump and his cadre of racist admirers, the question must stop being whom or what he knew, and instead why he failed to find out. As Gessen observed in 2020, “I didn’t know” assumes the culture will never change enough to condemn the bad behavior someday far in the future. The only way the culture will change—will stop tolerating violent, dangerous, and flagrant white supremacy moving about casually in the highest political circles—is when the culture stops asking Trump and his mealy-mouthed defenders whether he knew what he was legitimizing, and start asking why nobody ever bothered to find out.

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