NEW YORK — America’s reality TV president has made America face its reality, on TV.
Now, civil rights leaders across the country worry what will come from Donald Trump’s equivocation on racism and hatred—and the country’s struggle in the week and a half since Charlottesville to deal with a problem much bigger than a few hundred wannabe Nazis with Tiki torches. Civil rights leaders talk about deep, visceral fear about where this could lead, and not in the usual political “concern” or “objections.” They see a searing landscape of possibilities ahead: Riots. Violence at protests and counterprotests. Deep psychological and emotional damage, especially among children.
“We’re in a poisonous atmosphere that is being increased by the president of the United States. It’s like turning on the gas in a room,” Rev. Al Sharpton told me, speaking for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
“Any match could lead to an explosion, and we’re getting that kind of atmosphere from this president.”
Into the cauldron: Trump’s rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night, which White House aides reportedly worry will stoke more tension even before he opens his mouth for a speech that few expect will do anything to change course or apologize.
Sharpton would like Trump to say he’s sorry, to turn down the temperature. But he acknowledges that would probably be meaningless to him at this point.
“He’s getting further and further and further away from being able to change his own narrative,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton knows about protests, and he knows about Trump. He sat for the interview right after finishing his regular Saturday morning rally at National Action Network headquarters here in New York, just off Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, where Korey Wise—one of the wrongly accused Central Park Five whom Trump called for the death penalty for—was in the crowd applauding vintage Sharpton lines like, “Maybe the pope needs to send it back,” a dig at Trump’s giving Pope Francis a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Sharpton isn’t the only veteran of decades of fighting with Trump who sees last week as a new frontier—and now looking for new ways to take him on. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who made the future president’s enemies list 30 years ago while he was still in the New York Assembly for holding up a development on the Upper West Side, said he was still shocked to see anti-Semitism encouraged from this White House, and that’s why he’s written a resolution that would make Trump the first president since Andrew Jackson to be censured.
“If someone has no personal anti-Semitic or anti-black or racist feelings, but is willing to exploit those feelings for political advantage—is that morally superior?” Nadler said in a separate conversation for the Off Message podcast. “I think it’s terrible.” (The censure resolution is not going anywhere: During a CNN town hall Monday night, House Speaker Paul Ryan said censuring Trump would be “the absolutely worst thing we should do,” reasoning that Republicans joining with Democrats on this would be “some partisan hackfest.”)
Both men see this as a critical, but not surprising, moment for American history.
Sharpton is holding a rally next week, a march from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Aug. 28. It’s an annual event he organizes, but this year it seems to be taking on special significance—and he’s now stepping up both the number of expected participants and the amount of security accordingly.
In 2012, Sharpton accused Trump of peddling racism throughout his birther phase. They met in Trump Tower that November—“to apologize for calling me a racist—very nice, apology accepted!” was the @realDonaldTrump tweet, though the reverend himself said then and says now that he didn’t call Trump himself a racist, and that he didn’t apologize.
Sharpton still deliberately isn’t calling Trump a racist, or an anti-Semite. “I don’t want to reduce this to that. His policies are there. That speaks for itself. If we make it personal, he wins,” Sharpton said. “I used to call people names. Don’t give people the easy way out.” But, Sharpton added: “I think he has empowered anti-Semites and racists. I think he has brought them from the shadows into the mainstream and I think he’s emboldened them, and I think that’s a dangerous course for the country.”
Nadler thinks Trump should quit (though he points out, he’s not technically calling for that), and he’s authored a resolution to censure the president for his comments about neo-Nazis that he believes his Republican colleagues in Congress have a moral obligation to join.
Consequences are about to arrive in the form of other legislation, he warned: The president’s reaction to Charlottesville has hardened Democrats even further against providing votes to pass a budget or raise the debt ceiling, as they did when Republican infighting kept them from getting a majority on their own during the last few rounds. Put in a provision to defund Planned Parenthood, like in the 2013 shutdown, or to fund the border wall, Nadler says, and Democrats will walk away and not look back, even if that means not helping stop a potential economic collapse.
“We can’t give in to that kind of blackmail,” Nadler said. “We’re the minority. We have no leverage. When one party has control of both Houses of Congress and the president, it’s their responsibility. We will certainly help in any way we can, up to the point of doing terrible things.”
As for the Jewish aides to the administration who defend Trump, including his daughter and son-in-law Jared Kushner—who’s repeatedly knocked back charges of anti-Semitism against Trump by invoking his own grandparents’ survival of the Holocaust—Nadler says they need to get real.
“I don’t care what Jared Kushner said about the fact that Donald Trump loves, loves him and Ivanka and other people,” Nadler said. “He was willing to traffic in anti-Semitism. He was willing to use anti-Semitic imagery. And then, when caught up in it, refused to repudiate it, and denied that it was what it clearly was.”
Despite his long history with Trump, Nadler said he can remember meeting the future president only once, just after the first plans were finalized for that Manhattan development they fought over. Sitting in his office in Trump Tower, Nadler recalled, Trump showed off how many buildings there were, and how the highest one was to be 150 stories.
What’s the highest floor people live on in New York? Nadler asked him. Trump said it was right there in Trump Tower, on the 68th floor, where his apartment is.
“‘Oh, and I assume you’d live on the 150th floor?’” Nadler remembers asking him. “And he says, ‘Yes.’ And I concluded [that] this was all about his wanting to be the tallest man in the world, or the highest man in the world.”
But a story more painful for Nadler to discuss is his own history with anti-Semitism, including being threatened physically, as a college freshman, by a fellow student because he was Jewish. It shocked him, even in 1965, that he was being threatened at Columbia University in New York. “I think when I was growing up we really thought a lot of it was gone,” he said.
Sharpton also told a story he rarely shares, about his own first encounter with racism. Like Nadler, he grew up in New York, but was driving with his family to see his grandparents in Alabama for Christmas. He was about 4 years old. Stopping in North Carolina, his father—an amateur boxer who claimed to have once sparred with Sugar Ray Robinson—stopped to buy them hamburgers.
“He came back with his head down and my sister and I said, ‘What happened to the hamburgers?’ He said, ‘They won’t serve us here.’ And I never saw anybody humiliate or insult my father until then. I never saw my father the same,” Sharpton said.
In 1991, Sharpton was stabbed while leading a protest in Brooklyn in 1991, and he looks at that scar every morning getting dressed—and it reminds him of his father.
“What I most remember is my invincible father couldn’t make a guy sell us a hamburger in the middle of the night in North Carolina,” Sharpton said. “So I know and I feel the scars of disempowerment based on race.”
Sharpton has his own checkered history full of accusations of anti-Semitism. He bristles when those are brought up, saying that it’s usually willful misinterpretation by others seeking division, though some is reflective of his own learning curve.
To him, the imperative now is for people who are offended to stand united against Trump and refuse to play into the violence or debates like the one over the Confederate monuments because he says that’s what Trump wants.
He’s feeling a mix of emotions.
“Concerned because you wanted to think we were beyond that. Challenged because you can’t give up because had we given up before, we would have never made the progress we’ve got,” Sharpton said. “You’ve got to remember that that kid that watched his daddy couldn’t buy a hamburger was sitting on the platform watching Barack Obama be sworn in as president. So I’ve seen too much to give up.”
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