How Trump’s attacks on prosecutors build on history of using racist language and stereotypes

Donald Trump’s aggressive response to his fourth criminal indictment in five months follows a strategy he has long used against legal and political opponents: relentless attacks, often infused with language that is either overtly racist or is coded in ways that appeal to racists.

The early Republican presidential front-runner has used terms such as “animal” and “rabid” to describe Black district attorneys. He has accused Black prosecutors of being “racist.” He has made unsupported claims about their personal lives. And on his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump has deployed terms that rhyme with racial slurs as some of his supporters post racist screeds about the same targets.

The rhetoric is a reminder of Trump’s tendency to use coded racial messaging as a signal to supporters, an approach he has deployed over several decades as he evolved from a New York City real estate tycoon to a reality television star and, eventually, the president. Even if he doesn’t explicitly employ racial slurs, his language recalls America’s history of portraying Black people as not fully human.

“He’s taking that historical racialized language that was offensive and insulting, and the subordinating of Black persons, applying it in a contemporary space and really bubbling up that history,” said Bev-Freda Jackson, a professor in the school of public affairs at American University.

While this is a well-worn strategy for Trump, his latest comments come at a particularly sensitive moment. On a personal level, a bond agreement signed on Monday by Trump’s lawyers and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis imposes restrictions on his communications, including those issued through social media. And more broadly, experts worry Trump’s broadsides will worsen online vitriol and inspire violence.

“It makes the internet a more dangerous place,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “It just takes one angry person with a gun to do something terrible. And that’s frankly the kind of violence I’m the most worried about.”

Recent incidents underscore those concerns: Threats toward people involved in Trump’s cases have factored into an arrest in Texas and an FBI killing in Utah.

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung pushed back against the idea that the former president attacks people based on race, saying in an emailed statement that Trump “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body and anyone saying otherwise is a racist and bigot themselves.”

“He garnered record-breaking votes from ethnic minority voters in 2020 and it will be even bigger in 2024,” Cheung said.

Even before Trump was charged in Georgia last week with multiple criminal counts related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, he spent days assailing the prosecutor in the case with unfounded accusations and race-related attacks.

He wrote online that Willis was a “rabid partisan.” He ran an ad that claimed without evidence that she hid a relationship with a gang member she was prosecuting — an ad she called “derogatory and false” in an email to staff obtained by The Associated Press. He lobbed accusations that Willis, the first Black woman to hold her role, was “racist” and using the indictment as a “con job.”

After the indictment was filed, Trump sent an email highlighting parts of Willis’ background. Under a heading titled “A family steeped in hate,” Trump’s email notes her father’s identity as a former Black Panther and criminal defense attorney, as well as Willis’ stated pride in her Black heritage and Swahili first name, which means “prosperous.” Willis has been open about her father’s history and her heritage.

“This is who Donald Trump is,” said Cliff Albright, executive director of Black Voters Matter, a voting advocacy group. “He’s been this way all his time in public life.”

Willis has declined to comment on Trump’s attacks, but urged restraint in her email to staff about the ad.

“We have no personal feelings against those we investigate or prosecute and we should not express any,” she wrote.

Trump’s reaction to the Georgia charges match how he has responded to earlier indictments and investigations.

He has slammed Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is Black, as a “Soros backed animal” even though George Soros, the Hungarian American and Jewish billionaire who conservatives frequently invoke as a boogeyman, doesn’t know and didn’t directly donate to Bragg, according to a Soros spokesman. The former president also claimed Bragg was a “degenerate psychopath” who “hates the USA.”

  • August 22, 2023
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