You see how ludicrous the proposition is if you define racism is defined down to an impossibly narrow set of attitudes and behaviors: If he’s such a racist, why isn’t he calling for genocide or burning crosses on the White House lawn? As if anything short of marching in a tiki torch parade doesn’t count as real racism.
But let’s posit that Trump is not, in this sense, a “real” racist; that his use of racist tropes and racially inflammatory rhetoric are only political maneuvering that he thinks will give his poll numbers a jolt. The question is: What difference does it make?
Much of the criticism Trump has received over the last few years has been centered on the effects his presidency has had on the narrow fringe of Americans who actually hold enthusiastic, “real” racist beliefs—the white nationalists and white supremacists from which, time and again, he has been reluctant to distance himself. This has been understandable, particularly on the occasions when white supremacists have felt emboldened enough to carry out acts of deadly violence—as at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, or as recently as at the Gilroy Garlic Fest this weekend.
But the greater damage Trump inflicts might well go the other way: Not in turning more and more of his American supporters into out-and-out white nationalists, but in reassuring them that other, “milder” forms of racism aren’t really racism at all.