Donald Trump's embarrassing-for-everyone-involved public feud with Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former reality TV villain who became a White House aide before being fired and subsequently discovering that Trump was actually a bad guy, continues to spiral into oblivion. On Tuesday, CBS News aired a recording provided by Newman of her apparently discussing with other Trump staffers what to do if a tape of the president saying the N-word were to come out. “He said it. No, he said it. He is embarrassed,” former Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson can be heard saying.
Assuming the recording isn't fake, it seems to contradict Pierson's previous denials that such a conversation ever took place. (Pierson subsequently told the Daily Beast she was just going along with Omarosa's "concern trolling" about an N-word tape's potential existence because that was easier than arguing with her.) As is so common in Trumpland, it can be tiring to keep track of who is claiming who said what to who and when, and assessing the credibility of the various figures involved here seems pointless. The salient question on everyone's mind is: So is there really an N-word tape?
But behind that question looms a larger one: Would it matter—for Donald Trump's political fortunes or American politics more generally—if there were?
Rumors of footage showing Trump saying racist things or otherwise behaving badly on the set of The Apprentice have circulated since at least 2016. (Among the people spreading those rumors is comedian Tom Arnold, who has a forthcoming VICELAND show in which he hunts for "Trump tapes.") No one has ever confirmed such footage exists, but Trump is certainly rough around the edges, as an apologist might say. He's told Howard Stern he could have had sex with Princess Diana, reportedly called African countries "shitholes," claimed that a "Mexican" (actually US-born) judge couldn't be fair to him, stereotyped a group of Jewish Republicans as "negotiators," made his typical "Pocahontas" joke about Elizabeth Warren during an event honoring Navajo veterans, mocked a disabled reporter while on stage at a rally, and of course bragged about being able to grab women "by the pussy." It would still be at least somewhat surprising to hear him say the N-word, if such a tape exists. But anyone who thinks it would be a total shocker hasn't been following Trump—or the news—all that closely.
It would of course be at least momentarily awkward for Trump if such a tape emerged—and it would reinforce the perception by many Americans that he's deeply prejudiced. It's long been clear that his anti-immigration policies are fueled by nativism, he's stoked and refused to renounce violent white supremacists, and he's said lots of things over the years that might be fairly defined as racist. Take, for instance, his assertion in 2016 that the Central Park Five, the young men whose rape convictions were overturned thanks to DNA evidence, were still guilty. (He called for them to get the death penalty at the time of their original trial.)
But to many white Americans, it's unfair to call anyone or anything "racist" until you have a video of them saying the N-word while holding up a copy of the newspaper with today's date on it. An N-word tape would make all those Republican assertions that Trump isn't racist seem even more flimsy than they do today. And as much as Trump has busted through norms, the N-word is still the most electrified third rail in America—“Papa" John Schnatter was recently forced to resign from the pizza company he founded after saying it on a conference call. (He now seems to think he shouldn't have quit.)
It's undeniable an N-word tape would be the stop where some Trump fans get off the train for good. Administration officials would probably resign, and Republican senators might even denounce racism in strident speeches that actually mention Trump by name, though probably they wouldn't. The outrage on social media would be whipped into more of a lather than usual. Hundreds of opinion journalists would rush to file stories about how Trump's racism was obvious all along (that's what I'd be doing, anyway, full disclosure).
On the other hand, Trump has shown an ability to survive scandals that would destroy other politicians. His supporters didn't abandon him over the "grab 'em by the pussy" tape, and you can imagine a similar dynamic playing out here, even if saying the worst word in the English language is arguably more damaging than the casual violent sexism of the Access Hollywood tape. Trump would apologize for an offhand remark he made when he was, say, a young and foolish 50-something reality TV star. Surely at least one prominent black Trump supporter would claim that whatever Trump said, he is not racist—and look at the low black unemployment rate! Conservative pundits would not defend Trump's language, but they'd criticize the media for focusing so much on a couple of measly syllables. A subset of Trump backers—the people who like him because of his racism rather than in spite of it—would even cheer. The modern GOP contains open white supremacists and recently nominated a pro-Confederate candidate in a US Senate race in Virginia. If Republicans can tolerate the party's current levels of bigotry, it's likely they could tolerate a president who was caught on tape saying the N-word.
In other words, the conditions that make it possible to imagine Trump saying such a thing also demonstrate why it might not matter all that much. The tape would be news but it wouldn't tell us anything new about the president. The 2016 campaign made it clear that Trump was crude, cruel, politically incorrect, and prone to saying ugly things in public and uglier things in private. If an N-word would change your opinion of him, you just haven't been paying all that much attention.
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