Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) took a break from clapping back against conservatives on Twitter to sit down for a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper. The freshman congresswoman’s appearance on America’s highest-rated news program, which aired Sunday night, was the first extra-Internet opportunity for Ocasio-Cortez to broadcast some of her policy beliefs to a national audience. As was revealed in a teaser clip posted Friday, these include a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the wealthy, which was bandied about online throughout the weekend. But for all of her talk about tax rates, universal healthcare and a Green New Deal to combat climate change, Ocasio-Cortez has mostly abstained from taking on the president directly. When Cooper asked her why, she explained that she treats Trump as more of a “symptom of a problem.” Part of this problem, she went on, is racism in America. Cooper then asked her to state the obvious.
“The president certainly didn’t invent racism,” said Ocasio-Cortez, “but he’s certainly given a voice to it, and expanded it, and created a platform for those things.”
“Do you believe President Trump is a racist?”
Ocasio-Cortez could hardly believe the question. “Yeah,” she said, shaking her head. “No question.”
“How can you say that?” asked Cooper.
Cooper seemed to be asking Ocasio-Cortez to elaborate not so much because he doesn’t believe it to be true, but as a way to allow the new Democratic star to flesh out the claim to Americans who may still be grappling with the idea. “When you look at the words that he uses, which are historic dog whistles of white supremacy, when you look at how he reacted to the Charlottesville incident, where neo-Nazis murdered a woman, versus how he manufactures crises, like immigrants seeking legal refuge on our borders — it’s night and day,” Ocasio-Cortez responded.
.@AOC says the president is a racist, “no question.” The White House told 60 Minutes that President Trump “has repeatedly condemned racism and bigotry in all forms.” https://t.co/HmucF1z6zg pic.twitter.com/N5RlRfHoA9
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) January 7, 2019
As a real estate developer, Trump worked to keep black people out of his properties. He maintained that the Central Park Five — five minority teenagers convicted for a 1989 rape they didn’t commit — were guilty despite DNA evidence exonerating them. He pushed a conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Africa. Several people associated with The Apprentice have claimed Trump made racial slurs while filming the show, and in 2018 former contestant Omarosa Manigault-Newman released a tape of campaign aides seemingly discussing how to handle a recording of their boss saying the n-word, should it be made public. His career in politics has been based almost entirely on the idea that Muslims are terrorists and Hispanic people are criminals threatening to “infest” the United States. The list goes on and on, and on.
And yet, Ocasio-Cortez’s matter-of-fact contention that Trump is a racist has been treated as if it was a bold pronouncement. “She went there,” tweeted Jon Cooper, chairman of the Democratic Coalition. Most of the headlines responding to the interview have keyed on her calling the president a racist rather than what she laid out regarding the Green New Deal or her proposed tax rate. Right-wing media has been crying foul and tweeting pictures of the president taking selfies with black people to show he isn’t repulsed by them. In a matter of hours, the media is probably going to start asking Ocasio-Cortez’s colleagues in Congress to respond, just as they did last week when Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) said Trump is a “motherfucker” Congress will impeach.
Regardless of Trump’s record, the idea of the president being racist is still an incendiary concept for many Americans. Since the civil rights movement, the United States has been in denial of its foundational racism. To admit that the person American chose to represent the nation is a capital-R racist would constitute a betrayal of American exceptionalism. As long as there is even a sliver of plausible deniability that Trump is a white supremacist, the mainstream is going to find any way it can to live inside of it, lest it admit something deeply uncomfortable. The compulsion to keep playing dumb is why Cooper asked Ocasio-Cortez to elaborate on her response to a question he shouldn’t have even had to ask in the first place. It shouldn’t take a recording of Trump saying the n-word for America to accept that he’s racist.