Trump’s New Racist Insult

Weird things happen on the debate stage—just ask Joe Biden. So when Donald Trump used Palestinian as a slur against the president during last week’s debate, it was hard to know whether the insult was planned or just an ad-lib.

“As far as Israel and Hamas, Israel’s the one that wants to go—he said the only one who wants to keep going is Hamas. Actually, Israel is the one. And you should let them go and let them finish the job,” Trump said. “He doesn’t want to do it. He’s become like a Palestinian. But they don’t like him, because he’s a very bad Palestinian. He’s a weak one.”

Whether premeditated or improvised, it was one of the low points of the debate for Trump, whose performance was obscured by Biden’s disaster but was full of misleading and appalling statements. And the next day, he did it again.

“Look at a guy like Senator [Chuck] Schumer,” Trump said the day after the debate, referring to the Senate majority leader. “I’ve always known him, known him a long time. I come from New York; I knew Schumer. He’s become a Palestinian. He’s a Palestinian now. Congratulations. He was very loyal to Israel and to Jewish people. He’s Jewish. But he’s become a Palestinian because they have a couple of more votes or something; nobody’s quite figured it out.”

This is an Everlasting Gobstopper of offense, with new layers emerging one after another. (Trump, like Willy Wonka, favors oversize ties.) First, there is the idea that calling someone Palestinian is inherently pejorative. Then there is the implication that Schumer is a traitor to his own people. Next is the suggestion that Schumer’s opposition to the current Israeli government is a result of his having been bought off—an implication of scheming, an anti-Semitic trope—even though Schumer’s criticism of the current government aligns with large portions of Israeli society and military leadership.

Trump has sought to develop a moderate position on the war in Gaza. He doesn’t like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former ally, because of perceived personal slights. Trump has suggested at times that the war needs to end quickly, almost shading toward support for a cease-fire. But many in the Republican Party (including Trump’s donor base) are extremely hard-line and want to see Hamas flattened no matter the cost in blood. Trump has been more than happy to sit back and watch Democrats feud over the right course in the war.

But sometimes Trump reveals more than he intends. In using Palestinian this way, he’s not differentiating between Hamas and civilians, or between Hamas and Fatah, or between Gaza and the West Bank. All Palestinians are the same to him, and they are all contemptible.

The emergence of the insult is reminiscent of another notable Trump remark from the debate. The former president has sought to increase his support among Black voters, especially Black men, but he still doesn’t seem to know how to talk about Black people as anything besides an Other. During the debate, he warned that immigrants were “taking Black jobs now,” an argument premised on the idea that Black people do low-skill jobs and only low-skill jobs. This should come as little surprise—on The Apprentice, for example, Trump was resistant to Black contestants becoming executives.

These moments are useful for remembering who Trump is. His intense focus on the criminal cases against him and the retribution he hopes to deal out for them has become the center of his campaign, somewhat overshadowing the offensive rhetoric that anchored his 2016 effort. But sometimes the mask slips, and the old Trump is still behind it.

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