Racism is the Trump administration’s magic wand, a device it uses, to great effect, to dazzle its base, whose own proud bigotry dispenses with the need for suspension of disbelief. In the face of controversies and criticism, Trump race-baits not just for cynical political reasons—though that’s part of it—but because he, too, is deeply racist, so much that his presidency is basically a live-action revenge fantasy against the country’s first black president.
Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is the most recent target of the noxious output produced when Trump’s racism meets his unvarnished misogyny, revealing the particular contempt he holds for women of color, especially those powerful and uppity enough to publicly call him on his many failures. And if there was any question about whether Chief of Staff John Kelly endorses Trump’s targeting of women of color, recent events show this an all-hands-on-deck team effort.
Like Trump, Kelly’s zeal for demeaning and insulting black women cannot be derailed by the actual truth. On Tuesday, Rep. Wilson told press that while speaking with the grieving pregnant widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, Trump—who only bothered to make the call after a reporter questioned his 12-day delay in doing so—dismissively stated her husband “knew what he signed up for, but I guess [his death] still hurt.” Trump denied making the remark, as did his press secretary, but Kelly affirmed Wilson’s story during a damage control-focused press conference Thursday. That conflict was just one of several issues with the integrity of Kelly’s speech.
The chief of staff said he was stunned Wilson had listened in on the call, though she is a longtime friend of the Johnson family whose presence was requested, and Kelly himself had also been listening to the exchange. He claimed he longed for the days of his childhood, when women and Gold Star families were “sacred,” despite his high-visibility job working for a man who brags about sexual assault and insults the parents of dead soldiers. Kelly also took special pains to degrade and humiliate Rep. Wilson using a fake news story about her behavior at a 2015 dedication of a FBI Miami field office.
“[A] congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, OK, fine.”
Backed by a Miami Herald report and footage from the event, Wilson revealed the numerous falsehoods in Kelly’s retelling. The money for the building was secured before she was serving in Congress, and nowhere in her speech did she take credit for raising the funds. Instead, she highlighted her role in both sponsoring and expediting passage of a bill to name the building after two FBI agents who had been killed just four days before the event. “Rep. Wilson truly did the impossible, and we are eternally grateful,” former FBI head James Comey said in his remarks, according to Florida’s Sun Sentinel.
Let’s be clear here: Kelly didn’t misspeak or misremember Wilson’s words. He intentionally told a story meant to play on the stereotype of a money-grubbing black woman—like Ronald Reagan’s fabricated welfare queen—who is loud, wrong, unqualified and unfit to hold a prominent position, and always looking to get over on someone else’s dime. (The phony scene is also an implicit knock against Obama, who was often accused by white racists of giving copious handouts to black folks.) It’s not incidental that Kelly referred to Wilson as an “empty barrel,” a vessel whose only use is making “the most noise,” suggesting he holds her in such low regard he refuses to utter her name. Kelly deployed that racist misogynoir caricature not just against Wilson, but by extension, the family of a soldier whose sacrifice this administration pretends to value.
Spreading that racist image meant so much to Kelly, a Gold Star parent who knows the pain of losing a child, he went to the trouble of assembling a room of press to trash Wilson in the hope his lies would trounce the truth. What’s more, he couched the attack in soaring, laudatory words about god, country and young lives lost on battlefields, knowing his Gold Star status would add emotional heft to those words. This, we’re supposed to believe, is what the Trump administration considers “respecting our troops.” If the dictionary is lacking a definition for the words “politicization” or “opportunism,” a freeze-frame of Kelly mid-speech should fill the space.
Other racist talking heads followed Kelly’s lead. Tomi Lahren posted side by side photos of Wilson and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, accusing the former of “anti-Trump tantrums” and the latter of being “crazy.” Former Sheriff David Clarke, the gigantic hat wearing black Republican who probably has “One of the good ones” tattooed somewhere on his body, labeled Wilson a “buffoon” for her slightly smaller hat. Alex Pfeiffer, who writes for Tucker Carlson’s white nationalist-favored outlet the Daily Caller, tweeted that he’s “seen Frederica Wilson in Miami airport multiple times,” always “driven on a golf cart” by Miami police. “That’s the type of person she is,” Pfeiffer wrote, which is a long-winded way of calling a 75-year-old woman lazy, blackness being her preexisting condition. I scoured Pfeiffer’s tweets to find the one where he criticizes Trump for lazily driving his golf cart across the greens, but couldn’t find it for some reason. (Just kidding. I know the reason.)
Trump and his team try to shut down white women and men of color as well—see Trump’s rich history of woman-hating or his unhinged tweets toward outspoken black athletes—but Wilson is the recipient of a level vitriol they save for women of color. In recent weeks, Trump has launched attacks against ESPN anchor Jemele Hill for stating facts about his deeply held white supremacism, and fired upon San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for pointing out his cruelty and ineptitude toward the Puerto Rican people. This White House’s agenda is specifically designed to cause harm toward all Americans who are not white, male, heterosexual, cisgender or Christian. But it has an intolerance for black and other women of color that is unmatched, and in many ways, not even concealed.
“The sad part about it is, he didn’t know La David’s name,” Wilson told Politico, revisiting the insult that was Trump’s condolence call. “He kept calling him ‘your guy.’ Your guy did this. Your guy did that. Nobody cares about Mr. Trump. He’s not beloved. He’s not revered. So they don’t care. But I care…The conversation in my community is that he is a jerk. He’s not a real president.”